How Putin Brought the Games to Sochi
Credit: Dmitry Astakhov / AFP / Getty Images

Six years ago, when Sochi, the Russian city of 340,000 on the shores of the Black Sea, unexpectedly snagged the 2014 Winter Olympic Games – beating out Salzburg, Austria, and the South Korean city of Pyeongchang – the resort at Rosa Khutor, site of the alpine events, did not even exist. There was – literally – not a single run or chairlift. You couldn't even get there. The road to the base of what is now the resort had not yet been paved. Sochi was the first city in Olympic history selected to host the games with no ski infrastructure.

Since then, tens of thousands of laborers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia, Ukraine, Serbia, and elsewhere in the postcommunist world have built a skating complex, ski jumps, power grids, highways, tunnels, and Krasnaya Polyana, the village next to the resort, transforming it from a ramshackle collection of huts out of a Gogol short story into a gleaming Austria-like ski paradise, with six- and seven-story pastel-colored hotels, a Bavarian brewery, a five-star bar and grill that features a Greek-Belgian chef, spas, nightclubs (in Russia, there are always nightclubs), a neon clock tower, and – most important – one of the fastest mountains on Earth. All of this is expected to cost about $51 billion – $6 billion more than China's lavish 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, and a full $21 billion more than last year's Games in London – making it the most expensive Olympics ever hosted anywhere.

The Russians bought themselves some world-class skiing with all that money. The men's downhill course at Rosa Khutor, for example, is just shy of 2.2 miles – nearly a third of a mile longer than the one at Whistler, which hosted the 2010 Winter Games. It has a vertical drop of 3,527 feet, which is 700 feet longer than Whistler. "Rosa Khutor," says Bernhard Russi, the former alpine ski racer from Switzerland who designed the mountain's courses, "has an exceptional terrain rhythm – the steepness, the narrow parts, the flats, the drops, the wide-open fields." Sergey Bachin, Rosa Khutor's Moscow-based general director, says, "We have a much higher percentage of red and black slopes. The beginners, they can go to Courchevel. They can go to France."

Ted Ligety, the 2006 Olympic gold medalist who is expected to compete with the U.S. team at Sochi, describes Rosa Khutor as tactically difficult – "a lot of sharp breaks" – and adds that, in particular, the jumps on the men's downhill are excellent. "You probably go 60 meters and you get 10 feet off the ground," he says. Rosa Khutor remains an unknown quantity to most skiers competing at the Games, except the Russians, who have already trained there, and, Ligety notes, the Americans, who hammered out a deal that granted them preferential training time on the mountain.

Only Vladimir Putin, with what Russians like to call his silnaya ruka, or strong arm, could have turned this decrepit Soviet backwater into the premier international ski resort east of Innsbruck just in time for the Winter Olympics. The irony of hosting the Olympics in order to foster the impression that one's country is "normal," a modern, civilized country just like the United States, Germany, France, even China, is that only an abnormal country can do it. It means bulldozing villages, tearing up forests, ignoring labor codes, or not having labor codes at all. In short, it means being Soviet, czarist – something far from normal. Everything about the place: the mountain, the village, the armada of trucks, bulldozers, earthmovers, and helicopters – the whole magical, snowy fantasyland – reeks of power; unchecked, unregulated, dictatorial power.

Construction at Rosa Khutor is in its final phase. The finishing touches on the Olympic Village should be done by fall, and the restaurant at the summit is complete. "Is it Putin's Olympics? No doubt about that," says Roger McCarthy, the Canadian ski engineer who oversaw the design of Rosa Khutor. John Delargy, a former consultant for the real estate giant Cushman & Wakefield, which developed one of the resort's hotel complexes, calls the Games "completely Kremlin-driven. It's Putin's pet project."

The first Russians settled in what is now Krasnaya Polyana in the 1870s. In 1901, the czar, Nicholas II, built a hunting lodge outside the village, a little more than 1,200 miles south of St. Petersburg, but he never visited, and in 1917, the communists seized power. It has always been a remote place, isolated in the mountains and populated mostly by peasants and pensioners who hunted bison, drank moonshine, and sold homemade honey and religious icons out of the trunks of tiny, rusting Ladas. The only thread that connected them to civilization was an ancient, pockmarked, one-lane road that was frequently shut down by an avalanche or a boulder.

The first glimmerings of a ski culture came in the 1960s. "Most people who skied in Krasnaya Polyana at that time had to climb to the top of the mountains and work their way down, through the forests, wherever they wanted to go," says Aleksander Belokobilskiy, executive director of Rosa Khutor's day-to-day operations, who was born in Krasnaya Polyana in 1960. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, in 1991, Krasnaya Polyana was still two years away from its first makeshift chairlift, which included chairs that were meant for two, maybe three people. To make sure no one fell out, lift operators would fasten a chain around skiers' waists. Sometimes, skiers would cling to the sides instead of waiting for a seat, dangling above the slopes and treetops. That was the best way to skip ahead in line.

As recently as 2007, when Russia won the right to host the Games, Rosa Khutor remained an unruly collection of bumpy, ungroomed trails. At the base of the mountain, there was a dilapidated lodge where you could eat mushroom soup, dumplings, or very bad sushi, and a big, muddy, icy parking lot where scalpers sold lift tickets and "used" cellphones.

But Russia's bid for the Olympics had two big things going for it: It is one of the so-called BRIC countries – the others are Brazil, India, and China – which made it a politically correct choice to host the Games. And they had Vladimir Putin. Putin has famously gone to great lengths to craft a public persona that is athletic and masculine – working out with hockey stars, scuba diving in the Black Sea, shooting a Siberian tiger, riding a Harley at a bikers' rally – and he is an avid downhill skier. When the IOC met in Guatemala City to pick the host of the 2014 Games, Putin personally helped ensure the success of the bid.

"President Putin invited a lot of us individually to meet with him," recalls IOC member Gerhard Heiberg, a Norwegian businessman and the chairman of the committee that ran the 1994 Winter Games at Lillehammer. "I was in there talking with him, I think, for 45 minutes. He talked about Sochi, his personal interest in the Olympics. He was very friendly. He was open. He listened. It was very good preparation on the part of the Russians."

Roger McCarthy began working at Rosa Khutor in 2007. He had spent 20 years at Whistler, turned around Quebec's Mont-Tremblant, overseen a series of resorts in the United States and Canada, and was running a number of resorts, including Breckenridge, when the Russians called. When McCarthy flew to Sochi to check out the mountain, it was empty except for a few gondola towers and a pile of brand-new gondola cabins waiting to be strung up. "We started without any roads," McCarthy says.

In the beginning, he spent most of his time hopscotching around the mountain in an old, Russian army helicopter. "It's like a flying school bus – you know, curtains on the windows, total Russian experience," McCarthy says. "We'd fly to a spot – they never put the helicopter on the ground – so you were always jumping out, which was exciting because you never really knew how high off the ground you were because of the leaves, and then the helicopter was so powerful you were going to get blown into the trees anyway. I'd be with these young engineers, hiking five or six hours through the woods, locating lift stations, doing trail grading stuff."

McCarthy was enthusiastic about Rosa Khutor. "It's a big place – big snowfalls, really big snowfalls, and big avalanche issues. The lift layout, the trail layout, the equipment they bought – everything they've done is top shelf. They've imported the best expertise they could." Eventually, Rosa Khutor will expand westward, says Belokobilskiy, the resort director, and all four mountains surrounding Krasnaya Polyana will be accessible by a single chairlift pass, with more than 18 lifts covering more than 80 miles of runs. In the first half of January, during Russia's protracted New Year's holiday, 5,000 people ski the mountain every day. After the Olympics, that figure is expected to jump to 10,500.

The construction at Rosa Khutor and Krasnaya Polyana has not been achieved without damaging the environment. Nature preserves have been infringed on, and Igor Chestin, CEO of the World Wildlife Federation in Russia, says that it has led to a mass exodus of brown bears and red deer, and that the Mzymta River, which runs through the village, has been rendered "a muddy ditch." Environmentalists also say that there has been extensive deforestation in parts of Sochi National Park, a 478,000-acre wilderness located in the western region of the Caucasus Mountains.

There have also been violations of international norms regarding the treatment of labor. In February of this year, Human Rights Watch issued a report, "Race to the Bottom: Exploitation of Migrant Workers Ahead of Russia's 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi," stating, among other things, that laborers were expected to work 12-hour shifts seven days a week and that, in many cases, they were not paid. Salaries hovered between 55 rubles ($1.80) and 80 rubles ($2.60) per hour. Some foreign workers reported they had been forced to surrender their passports.

Meanwhile, Sochi would be the first Olympic Games to take place within an hour's drive of a war zone. Bachin, Rosa Khutor's general director, dismisses these concerns, calling the talk about the "frozen conflict" greatly overblown. "Abkhazia is not a war zone," he says. "It's a country."

At some point, though, the human and environmental costs of putting on a spectacle of this size may surface. But it probably won't matter. "The Olympics are a show of national prowess and propaganda," says Nina Khrushcheva, an international affairs expert and the great-granddaughter of former Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. "Sochi will be, too." That means that if everything goes as planned, and the Russians put on a great show, with world-class trails, supersonic gondolas, and otherworldly clubs and parties and models and Euro-celebrities, no one will remember the problems, and all that will remain is the Games.