The rush to ready Sochi
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – There’s a Subway restaurant at the base of the gondola in Gorki City, but you can’t buy a ham and cheese sub there just yet.
The inside of the eatery, as seen through its windows over the last three days, looks more like a repository for restaurant supplies and equipment. Dusty-looking boxes are strewn around, countertops are wrapped in plastic and standing on end, and chairs are stacked on top of tables. The place just looks dirty.
Back outside, the cobblestone streets around this newly built city are lined with hulking, six- and seven-story hotels and apartment complexes. There are storefronts on the lower levels of the buildings, along with a large shopping mall, but many are empty and filled with boxes of unopened merchandise and unassembled store fixtures. Many of the mall’s storefront windows are covered with large “Opening Soon” banners.
It’s the eve of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. You can’t get any sooner than that.
In the last few days as I’ve made my daily commute between the Gorki Panorama hotel, located at the top of the gondola, and the Gorki Media Center in the city below, there’s been a rush of activity to try and get this area ready for the start of the Olympics, or at least to make it look like it’s ready.
The first night we were here, Lou noticed one particular empty storefront in the mall, though I can’t recall why. When we walked by it the next night, it was home to a luxury jewelry store.
New retail stores seem to pop up overnight. Countless U-Haul-size trucks typically sit parked along the streets while groups of men carry box after box of merchandise – much of it high-end, designer brands – into each store.
Small trees and hedges are being “planted” in the frozen soil at the last minute. The ones that don’t stand up on their own are held up with string tied to stakes in the ground.
As we turned a corner Thursday night, we were surprised to see a group of five or six people dressed in heavy winter coats using scrapers to peel the adhesive “Coming Soon” signs off several storefronts. The temperature outside then must have been 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Amid all this activity, just about anywhere you go, you will see the people Lou and I have come to call “the sweepers.” They’re mostly solitary men, carrying brooms and dustpans, quietly sweeping up what seems like every square meter of the city, at all hours of the day. I’ve wondered if they asked for this job, if it’s even a job, or were sentenced to it.
The one thing I keep coming back to about these games, from my first few days here, is how important “image” is to the Russian organizers. The directive must be, “Make things look good, even if they’re not.”
That was my impression from the minute we left the Sochi airport. The streets are lined for miles on both sides with 6- to-10-foot-tall fences covered in sheets of plastic. Behind them are the things they don’t want you to see: construction yards, complexes of worker housing, dilapidated buildings. There’s a rectangular-shaped building near the Gorki Media Center that is lit up at night with festive lights. I realized when we drove by it during the day that it’s actually some kind of water treatment plant.
Don’t get me wrong; our hotel, and the others in Gorki village and Gorki city, are beautiful. I’ve never stayed at such a classy-looking, high-end resort before. But as I’ve written about already, these hotels have been plenty rough around the edges. Yet progress is being made. When we got back to our room Thursday night, we were pleased to discover the heat was on and the phone and television were finally working. And my observations are limited to Krasnaya Polyana. I haven’t been to the Coastal Cluster of venues yet.
More importantly, what do the athletes think about this lack of preparedness? The ones I’ve asked about it or heard speak about it say it hasn’t affected them, so they’re not concerned.
U.S. alpine ski racer Bode Miller, who’s competing in his fifth Olympic Games, said Thursday that the preparation for these games “was very rushed, is what you get the impression of – that everything isn’t quite done; they could use a little bit more time.”
But this isn’t the first time an Olympics was up against the gun, Miller added.
“Even Salt Lake (City),” in Utah in 2002, “seemed like they were scrambling at the end to get stuff done. I won’t pass any judgment until after the opening ceremonies,” Miller said, before adding with a smile, “so they have another few hours.”
Asked about the political issues surrounding these games, including Russia’s anti-gay laws, Miller said “the issues here are no more political than the ones in China or Olympics as far back as you can remember.
“I think once the opening ceremonies start and the games start … the political stuff kind of drifts into the periphery for a little while,” Miller said. “I don’t really think the Olympics is a place for that kind of politics. I think it’s a place for sports and a place where different cultures put aside their differences and compete. It’s a really good test of people’s ability to do that. It’s easy to get caught up in all that other stuff and forget what the Olympics is all about.”