Behind the Scenes of the Winter Olympics In Russia

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Workers stand atop the cauldron ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Olympic Park on Sunday.

Workers on top of the Olympic Cauldron, Sochi, Russia, with Caucasus Mountains in the background.

The final countdown to the Winter Olympics is on, but all is not well in Sochi. A few weeks ago I wrote about the why and wherefores of Sochi being chosen as the site for the 2014 Winter Games, and the multiple problems plaguing Russia’s preparations for the events. Here’s an update:

  • Hundreds of people have arrived in Sochi to find their paid-for accommodations unfinished or non-existent. Not to worry, President Vladimir Putin himself has swept in to take the situation in hand, even if the majority of the disaffected visitors (thus far) have been reporters. (Putin holds the free press in deep disregard.)
  • Angry journalists are tweeting pics of their unfinished hotel rooms, and relating their Sochi horror stories on line. One New York Times reporter was woken in the middle of the night by a strange man in his bedroom, key in hand, sputtering with indignation. The hotel staff had assigned both men the same room.
  • Amidst all the protests of Russia’s homophobia, the mayor of Sochi declared quite emphatically that there are no homosexuals among Sochi’s citizenry. Drag queen Madame Zhu-Zha contradicted the mayor, saying there is a gay community in Sochi, and s/he was living proof. (Don’t believe me? Check out BBC World News.) And the BBC reporter who procured that mayoral nugget had gone to a Sochi gay bar the night before interviewing the mayor. Another local official called the mayor’s claims “laughable.”
  • Nevertheless, the mayor offered that warm and fuzzy Russian hospitality we know so well – and love – and said gays were “welcome” at the Games, as long as they “respect Russian law.” (Oh yeah, those anti-gay laws ….)
  • And, the Georgian prime minister is concerned about Russia expanding the Sochi security zone into neighboring provinces that used to be part of Georgia. Most recently the PM threatened to take unspecified actions if Russia supports these breakaway provinces. (This is in addition to earlier terrorist threats to “disrupt” the Winter Games in Sochi.)
  • Meanwhile, President Obama has sent two U.S. Navy warships which are hovering outside of Sochi in the Black Sea, on standby. Exactly what the Navy will do and under what circumstances is unclear.

The Times’ February 3 article reported, with restraint, that Sochi is “a work in progress,” which seemed facetiously optimistic. The Times and other on-line news organizations have described Sochi as looking like a giant construction lot, noting that this is on-going building, not punch-list activities, in the days before the Winter Games begin. Some of the unresolved problems:

  • Uncompleted hotels and shortage of rooms (check – got that!
  • Power outages that interfere with construction as well as security efforts.
  • In the “finished” hotel rooms, exploding electrical outlets, handles that come off doors, lack of hot water
  • Olympic housing and dining facilities unnamed and unnumbered, with temporary, numbered paper signs taped to building fronts
  • Elevators that don’t work

BUT, the new $8.7 billion road and rail system from the coastal Olympic area to the mountain venue seems complete and functional. The athletes’ facilities and sporting venues are more or less ready for business, even if much of the public areas are still under construction. The Olympic Committee and Sochi authorities have arranged for cruise ships to dock in both Sochi and Adler, site of the Coastal Cluster of Olympic venues, to provide additional and very much needed “hotel” facilities. And there IS snow! So if nothing else, the views of the Caucasus Mountains will be gorgeous.

But, what to do about all those pesky stray dogs?!

Like any construction sites, the Sochi area’s frenetic building activity has attracted thousands of stray dogs. Orders came recently from City Hall that the strays will be rounded up and exterminated, as the dogs have become a bit of a nuisance. The “director general” of pest control for the company given the extermination contract bemoaned the wily strays after a dog managed to crash an opening ceremony rehearsal and join the participants. “God forbid something like this happens at the actual opening ceremony. This will be a disgrace for the whole country.” Oh, horrors!

Last year, Sochi’s city hall shelved similar canine extermination plans after wide-spread protest from animal activists. The authorities subsequently back-pedaled and vowed to build a shelter instead of annihilating the dogs, but activists claim these promises have not been fulfilled. City Hall also hasn’t explained how their contract killers will “dispose” of the dogs, although shooting strays is a common practice in Russia.

So, Sochi is turning out to be a bigger story than just the actual athletic events. The public in general and interest groups in particular will have plenty to crow about: Will there be enough hotel rooms and will they have hot water? Will there be a terrorist attack? Will Georgia and Russia go to war — again? And – last but not least – will Sochi actually follow through on shooting gays – BIG whoops! – I meant, strays?

Stay tuned…and let the Games begin! And as the irrepressible Effie Trinket always tells the competitors, “May the odds ever be in your favor!” Unfortunately, I fear, everyone in Sochi will need them.

Paul Gilham, Getty Images