The $51 billion Sochi Olympics are already infamous for being the most expensive Games in history, and now 13,000 fellow journalists, including me, are here to see the results of all that spending.
So far, the foreign press has lambasted the Russian government for the huge budget expenditures while chronicling the slapstick comedies waiting to happen in unfinished hotel rooms. The Russian government’s reaction has been typically knee-jerk, with Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak declaring that only $6 billion was spent directly on the Games, as if the $8.7 billion “caviar road” to the mountain cluster of Olympic venues shouldn’t count at all.
But now that the Games have arrived and construction is winding down (it’s by no means finished), many locals are happy with Olympic-related improvements, including 400 public buildings and infrastructural elements, as well as new utility systems, roads and residential buildings.
“I have a positive attitude toward the Olympics,” said Andrei Tanichev, owner of Mayak, one of the city’s two gay clubs. “Before, we were tormented by traffic…. When snow fell in the mountains, the electricity would turn off for five days.”
But whether this development was worth the cost to taxpayers, let alone those residents who lost their homes, is another question. “In Russia it’s not customary to count the money, the main thing is that there was development,” another Sochi acquaintance told me.
Under that criteria, what did Sochi actually get for $51 billion?
No more traffic jams
A new beltway has diverted through-traffic around central Sochi and has taken the pressure off the main road running along the coast. As a result, driving the sixteen or so miles from downtown Sochi to the Adler district, where the Olympic stadiums are located, now takes about half an hour rather than two and a half hours.
Better access for the disabled
With their iced-over sidewalks, high curbs, ubiquitous walking underpasses, general lack of elevators and no concept of pedestrian right-of-way, Russian cities are not known for being particularly friendly to people with disabilities, and the strung-out resort town of Sochi was no exception. But with the arrival of the Olympics, the city has been peppered with wheelchair ramps, tactile paving for the blind and, to the utter bewilderment of anyone who has lived in Russia, audio signals at major crosswalks.
A non-Soviet airport
In the old airport, arrivals were written up on the wall by hand and angry attendants yelled out departures over megaphones. Now Sochi has a modern airport that doesn’t transport you back to the Soviet Union as soon as you walk into it.