When this southern Russian city was awarded the 2014 Winter Olympics seven years ago, most of the country celebrated, feeling a burst of national pride. But Yulia Saltikova quietly cursed the television set. Life in her native city, she felt, was about to go from difficult to worse.
That premonition has proved sadly correct. Winning the Olympics has brought a carnival of construction to this palm-tree-lined resort on the Black Sea, to prepare for the most expensive Games ever, slated to cost at least $50-billion (U.S.).
As Ms. Saltikova had predicted, that redevelopment machine has brought only misery to her family and friends on Acacia Street, a tiny corner of Sochi that the Olympic athletes and spectators will likely never see.
First, city officials demolished the only drivable entrance to their modest cluster of cement bungalows, to make way for a new six-lane highway connecting the main sporting sites with dormitories for Olympic volunteers, leaving only a potholed alleyway to enter and exit Acacia Street.
Next, the shared lavatory building – the neighbourhood is a converted military barracks – was knocked down, leaving residents with only wooden outhouses.
In September, rainwater pouring downhill from the new highway flooded the homes, forcing Ms. Saltikova and her two young sons to flee and stay with relatives for the winter. There too, the electricity sometimes blinks off when the power is turned on for test runs at the big Olympic venues.
“They tell us ‘this is an international celebration and we must do everything for this international celebration.’ But they’re not doing anything for the people of Sochi,” the 33-year-old accountant said, tiptoeing through the mud around her abandoned home. “People in Sochi still live the way they did in the 1980s. I don’t know where all the money is going.”
Ms. Saltikova is not the only one wondering where all the money went. The 2014 Winter Games will be the most expensive Olympics ever staged. One month before the first slope is skied or puck is slapped, upwards of $50-billion (U.S.) has already been spent overhauling this former retreat for Communist Party elites. Some estimates put the bill at closer to $60-billion, five times the original budget and more than eight times the $7-billion it cost to stage the previous Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
The Olympics will unfold amid a tapestry of other controversies as well, highlighted by Russia’s newly implemented “anti-gay propaganda” law, which makes it a criminal offence to portray gays and lesbians as having normal lives. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised the law won’t be applied in Sochi during the Games, local authorities have denied permission for a Pride House – a gay-themed pavillion that was part of both the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics and the London 2012 Summer Games – to be set up in Sochi, fearing it would breach the new law.
Mr. Putin recently moved to soften Russia’s image on another front, last month approving an amnesty that saw Kremlin critics, including businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky and punk rockers Pussy Riot, released from prison ahead of the Olympics. He also lifted a ban on protests in Sochi during the Olympic period, though any would-be demonstrators would still have to seek official permission for a gathering.
No one is going so far as to call it a boycott, but the leaders of Canada, France, Germany and the United States have all made it clear they won’t be attending the Games, all planning to send only low-level officials. The U.S. delegation is notable for its inclusion of openly gay athletes such as figure skater Brian Boitano and former tennis star Billie Jean King.
There’s also the war next door in Russia’s North Caucasus region, where bomb blasts and shootouts pitting Islamist insurgents against Russian security forces are a near-daily occurrence. The extremist Caucasus Emirate group – which has links to al-Qaeda as well as to jihadi rebels fighting in Syria – has called for attacks on the Sochi Games.
Suicide bombers struck the city of Volgograd, about 700 kilometres northeast of Sochi, twice in late December, leaving 34 people dead and hundreds injured.