While the rest of the world seems to be focused on a threatened boycott of the Winter Olympics, there are a number of other developments in Sochi that could make the 2014 Winter Olympics one of the most memorable ever.
Top model and charity worker Natalia Vodianova at the presentation of the Olympic torch and uniform for the 2014 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi. Photo: RIA Novosti / Vladimir Astapkovich
With just six months to go until the start of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, it’s safe to say that these Olympics have already been one of the most controversial in recent memory.
Even before the current worldwide outcry and threatened boycott of the Winter Games over Russia’s controversial new anti-gay legislation, there were rising concerns that Sochi could become the site of a terrorist attack, given the city’s proximity to Chechnya and Dagestan.
And before that, there was the growing concern that the Sochi Winter Games had transformed into a $50 billion personal vanity project for President Putin and the most expensive, corruption-plagued Olympics ever.
But if you think that’s all there is to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, you haven’t been paying attention.
There are, indeed, seven emerging story lines about Sochi that should warm the hearts of everyone who believes in the power of sport to bring the world together every few years and celebrate what makes us similar instead of what sets us apart.
From taking the Olympic torch into outer space for the first time to bringing peace to the war-torn Caucasus, these Olympics actually may go down in history as one of the most successful ever. Ever since Sochi won the right to host the games in 2007, there has been a concerted effort by Russia to ensure that the billions of dollars invested in new competition venues and infrastructural improvements would become a base for future economic growth in the region after the conclusion of the Olympics.
The Outer Space Olympics
Perhaps the most interesting storyline around the Sochi Olympics involves the unifying symbol of the Olympic Torch, which is headed into outer space for the first time ever. The Olympic Torch Relay, which has as its sponsor none other than American iconic brand Coca-Cola, will crisscross Russia starting in October before heading into outer space to celebrate Russia’s proud space heritage.
The Sochi 2014 Organizing committee, in partnership with Roscosmos (Russia’s NASA) is already hard at work cranking out an Olympic Torch capable of making it into the challenging environs of space (and the bottom of a Russian volcano). We live in an era of celebrity astronauts singing David Bowie songs while in orbit, so it’s safe to assume that we’re about to see the launch of a new Russian celebrity cosmonaut and inspirational talk of Russia’s space achievements once again. And, as if that's not enough, there are also the "meteorite medals" for some Olympic gold medal winners.
The X Games Olympics
At the same time, we’re starting to hear more details about the new “X Games” sports that will debut at Sochi and that could transform these Winter Olympics into the most exciting ever. The reason why NBC was willing to plunk down hundreds of millions of dollars to televise the Winter Olympics in 2014 may have to do with the fact that they’re creating the perfect programming for the X Games demographic.
Sure, sports like figure skating and hockey have guaranteed draws and a huge, built-in fan base, but it’s the new X Sports disciplines that could make these Olympics a big draw for the 18-to-34 demo. Programming based around sports from snowboard cross (a sport in which daredevil snowboarders race after each other on an obstacle course) to slopestyle and half-pipe means that we’ll soon have a new Shaun White or Lindsey Vonn here in the U.S. as an icon of winter sports.
The new Russian volunteer movement
A volunteer at the Sochi Olympics. Photo: PhotoXPress
The Sochi 2014 Olympic Games have also given ordinary Russians around the nation something they haven’t had in some time – a reason to become part of a vast volunteer movement. For the Sochi games, the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee has lined up 25,000 volunteers. And, before that, they’ve tapped into thousands of volunteers for the broad range of qualifying and test events ahead of the Olympics.
While Sochi’s 25,000 may pale in comparison to the 100,000 or so who volunteered for the Beijing Games in 2008, it’s significant in a country where citizens have long had historical reasons to fear the state. Russian citizens – apathetic by American standards when it comes to volunteer causes – have been activated like never before. In 2012, when a freak tsunami-like flood destroyed resort villages near Sochi, Russians showed up by the thousands to donate disaster relief – even before the Russian government had declared it a disaster zone.
The return of Russia to the world stage
With billions of people around the world tuning in to the Winter Olympics, Russia and Vladimir Putin are understandably excited about a boost to national prestige. These Winter Olympics will mark the return of Russia to the world stage, in the same way that the 2008 Summer Games marked the arrival of China.
At the “1 Year to Go” ceremony in Sochi earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin outlined his vision for the Sochi Winter Games, in which the city of Sochi will anchor a vast new regional tourism zone along the Black Sea. After all, Sochi is not just the host of the 2014 Winter Olympics – it will also begin hosting Formula 1 Grand Prix events next year, and in 2018, will be a host site for the FIFA World Cup. To make that a reality, the entire area of Greater Sochi has been turned into Europe’s largest construction zone – a surreal landscape of hotels, condos, theme parks and architecturally stunning new competition venues like the Bolshoi Ice Dome.
The greenest Olympics ever
And, by re-introducing Russia to the world stage, these Olympics are also forcing Russia to take on areas that it has historically ignored – like the environment. From the outset, there has been a respect for the flora and fauna surrounding Sochi’s competition venues and an emphasis on transforming these Sochi Winter Games into the greenest Olympics ever. On the home page of the Sochi 2014 Games is a statement by the Organizing Committee about the Green impact of the games. In nearby Adler, there’s already a giant solar-powered rail station. While the Western media may focus on the destruction of habitats in the mountains of Krasnaya Polyana, there’s actually been a real effort to repopulate the area with indigenous species like the snow leopard of the Caucasus Mountains. After airlifting in two snow leopards from Portugal, Russia has already reported an early success – the first-ever birth of snow leopards born in captivity in Sochi. And the snow leopard – yes, it’s one of the mascots of the Sochi Olympics.
The global warming Olympics
At the same time that Russia is acquainting itself with the green environmental movement, the nation is also making this the first de facto global warming Olympics ever. Sochi, after all, is first and foremost a subtropical summer resort on the Black Sea. Hosting a Winter Olympics in a subtropical zone has never been done before.
Yet, the vision of President Putin (who maintains a magnificent ski home in the mountains outside of central Sochi) is to transform the mountainous area of the Western Caucasus into Russia’s version of Courchevel – a massive cross-linked set of winter alpine ski resorts in the mountains. To make it possible, state construction firm Olympstroy has embarked on a massive snowmaking operation that includes laying down futuristic, cold-preserving tarps along the mountainsides, in order to guarantee enough snow in 2014.
The economic revival of the Caucasus
And, speaking of the Caucasus, this may be one of the real wins of the Sochi Olympics – bringing peace to a volatile region that has struggled for centuries. There’s no mistaking that this has been a volatile region. The original “No Sochi 2014” boycott effort cited Russian transgressions in the Caucasus that date back to the 1850s – a time when Russian authors like Lermontov, Tolstoy and Pushkin made the pilgrimage to the Caucasus. Sochi itself immediately borders the disputed region of Abkhazia and sits closer to Chechnya than Moscow.
Russian World Champion in ice dancing Ilya Averbukh, left, and Olympic Champion in ice dancing Tatyana Navka present the Olympic torch for 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, in Moscow. Photo: AP
If you buy into the economic revitalization theories of the West – that investing in a region will bring jobs, that jobs will bring stability, and stability will lead to prosperity – than dumping $50 billion into an area the size of greater Los Angeles has to result in some kind of economic impact, never mind how much corruption is said to have occurred.
Sochi as a symbol of modern Russia
Assuming that Russia manages to parry the calls to boycott the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, we may have an over-the-top Russian Olympic spectacle in Sochi that we’ll be talking about for some time. “Snow Leopard” will no longer just be an Apple operating system – it will be a symbol of a new, modern Russia.
For Americans, “Caucasian” will no longer be just a box for "race" you check on an application – it will also refer to a region of South Russia with a distinct socio-economic identity. And the excitement that comes from including X Games-style events may make the Sochi Olympics something cool that you share with your friends on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Just as Peter the Great transformed the Baltic swamps into the majestic imperial city of St. Petersburg, Russia’s current President is transforming the mountainous coastline along the Black Sea into a sparkling new all-season resort destination the equal of any in Europe.