As these XXII Winter Games slip over the hump into the ninth and middle day, it is time to stand back and look afresh at what has been created here on the shores of the Black Sea and the snow-covered ridges of the Western Caucasus.
Enough of the fake Potemkin village references that have filled so many North American publications. Enough talk of the missing shower curtains, rusty water, broken door handles, stray dogs and endless fence talk that dominated almost as much of the first week as the events themselves.
These are still the Olympics, and Dick Pound, for one, thinks they are so far a grand success, no matter how many in the West were looking for Vladimir Putin and Russia to fall flat on their collective face.
Pound’s opinion matters. The 71-year-old Montreal lawyer was once vice-president of the International Olympic Committee, and very nearly headed it. For a time, he was more responsible than anyone for the phenomenal broadcast-revenue growth that now helps finance the Games. He still sits on various IOC committees and has attended Summer and Winter Olympics since the 1960 Rome Summer Games, when he swam for Canada in the 100-metre freestyle and barely missed the podium in the relay.
“I think they are great Olympics,” Pound says, “in the sense that the athletes have had the opportunity to do the best they can on the day they compete. And the best thing is, you don’t have to freeze your butt off at the Olympic Winter Games.”
Of particular delight has been the Canadian performance. After setting so many new records in Vancouver four years ago – 14 gold and a total of 26 medals – Canada got off to its best start ever in Sochi. At one point, Canada was even leading the medals race and, halfway through, remains in the thick of it.
Pound was there to present the medals at team figure skating and was absolutely astonished by the Canadian success in speed skating.
“I was there when [Charles] Hamelin won the 1,500-metre,” says Pound. “The most masterful control of a race that I have ever seen. He just pushed everybody into his race – and he was a little bit better than anyone else.”
As for the Games themselves, Pound is as impressed with the Russian effort at staging these Games as he has been by the Canadian effort at winning them.
“Up in the mountains they’ve built the equivalent of a lot of those major European ski destinations in six years instead of 60 years,” he says. “And they’ve brought in the technology. They’ve had the Swiss and the Austrians build the lift technology that is simply spectacular. When they want to do something, they get it done. People have a tendency to underestimate the Russians.”
Perhaps so, it is suggested, but what about the one constant issue that has arisen both going into these Winter Games and each day they have gone on: Are they worth whatever it is costing – most estimates say more than $50-billion – to stage them?
“For sure,” Pound says. “Yes. For the host countries, they do a number of things, one of which is the focus on sports so you don’t do badly in your own Games. The top-down effect in the host country is huge.
“And then there is the legacy. This is what they wanted when they approached us for the Games. They said, ‘There are a number of countries that already have the facilities in place. We don’t.’” To get such winter infrastructure, the Russians would need to start from scratch, but Pound says they promised: “‘If you give us the Games, we will do that.’”
And that, Pound says, is precisely what happened. Russia now has the facilities it did not have for sport. “They will maintain their facilities,” he says. “This whole area will become their main training centre.”
As for that astonishing number, $50-billion, he says you can choose how you wish to measure the costs. “We look at it at the IOC,” he says, “and we say, ‘What is the Olympic portion of all that? And is it in the range of what you would expect today?’ And the answer to that is yes.”
“If Russia wants to do that,” he says, “and that’s how much it cost them, well, the new Russia is not the Soviet Union of 30 years ago. It’s different, and we in the West are going to have to adjust our own thinking to that fact.”
As for future Games sites, Pound sees new wealth and hosting ambitions in places such as Kazakhstan.
“Just wait until they get their oil on-stream,” he says. “I mean, Kazakhstan is the size of Australia! They are going to have vast amounts of money and they are going to build stuff from the bottom up. It’s a different world.”
So get used to it.