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Letter from Sochi: The Olympic Debut of New Russia

By , and Maik Grossekathöfer in Sochi

Photo Gallery: The Meaning of Sochi Photos
AP/dpa

The Sochi Olympics began under a cloud of criticism and distrust. On the ground, however, people are doing all they can to impress the world with images from a city that is representative of a new, more hopeful young Russia.

Diana Eksuzyan is standing behind the security checkpoint at the entrance to Olympic Park, she is wearing the blue snowsuit worn by all volunteers at these games. Behind her shine the lights of Fischt Stadium, where the opening ceremonies are about to begin while in front of her rises the oversized flame torch, still without its fire. Her eyebrows are neatly plucked, her lips have been augmented. Her job is to explain to visitors how to find their seats, telling them how far it is, pointing out the nearest restroom. And she has to smile. "It is supposed to be a smile that comes from the heart," she says, "not a Hollywood smile."

Eksuzyan is 22 years old and studies law and public relations in Sochi; she lives 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) away on the border to Abkhazia. She is convinced that the Olympic Games are the best thing that could happen to Russia and, more specifically, to Sochi. "Finally, we once again have the opportunity to prove that we can achieve something great," she says. And smiles.

Blimps are hanging in the sky scanning the area, surveillance cameras are mounted on every corner and police stand guard at the old Orthodox cemetery that was allowed to remain even as thousands of residents were forced to relocate to make way for the games.

'Sochi Has Never Had Such Hope'

Eksuzyan , too, is keeping her eyes and ears open. She was trained to immediately report suspicious persons to the police. "I feel I am responsible for the city," she says. "One thing is certain: Sochi has never had such hope."

The city made a bid to host the Olympics three times before finally winning. The first was in 1991 when Mikhail Gorbachev was still the head of the Soviet Union. The second try came in 1995.

Finally, last Friday, the city on the Black Sea coast was able to host its own opening ceremony, and it was more of a folkloric history lesson than a party for the youth. It was not buoyantly chaotic, but neither was it exaggeratedly monumental. The floating troika, the gigantic train, the sheer mass of dancers, the ballet scenes from "Swan Lake" -- it was all more classic than pop. And there was a significant snafu, when one of the five snowflakes that descended to the Olympic rings failed to open up. In short, the opening ceremony was not a party. Perhaps it wasn't meant to be either, though.

A Fairy Tale with an Open Ending

Olympic hosts tend to present their guests with a fairy tale set in a world in which everything is just as it should be. At these games in Sochi, at the foot of the Caucasus mountains, on the Black Sea, in the subtropics, it is not at all clear that this fairy tale will end well.

Russia would love to return to its past glory and, with these games, the country wants to show what it is capable of in the 21st century. Sochi is symbolic of Russia's strengths, but also of its weaknesses.

Was it the right move to award the games to Sochi, located in the heart of this crisis-ridden region? In the run-up to these Olympics, the West spoke of the Circassians who were driven out of Sochi and the surrounding area 150 years ago. People spoke of homophobia and violated human rights. They spoke of Russia's role in Syria. Of environmental degradation and corruption. And of the €38 billion that these games cost, the most expensive sporting event ever held.

Sochi is difficult to pin down these days. Journalists stand on newly rolled out grass waiting for the bus that will take them to the press center, where they will write reports full of schadenfreude about hotels that have no warm water or Internet and serve up terrible food. There are athletes who are unsure if they should be happy about coming to Sochi. And then there are the Russians. Some are protesting against the games, some are ecstatic that they have finally arrived and some simply don't know what to make of it all.

The Office for the Development of Volunteerism is located in the heart of the city, not far from the university. An aquarium stands in the hallway. Diana Eksuzyan, the volunteer from the Olympic Park, enters a conference room full of black tables. Although she doesn't belong to a political party, she is the chair of the city's youth parliament. She is leading a group of 358 volunteers during the games. Eksuzyan speaks passable German and has friends in Berlin and in France. She says she has often been asked why she has become so involved in these games.

'The Olympic Games Have Brought Europe to Sochi'

And how does she respond? "The belief that we can't handle it, the view that we didn't earn the games -- that is the skepticism of Western societies," she says. She doesn't just shrug off criticism. Instead, she is driven by it. Russia simply doesn't want to make the effort to understand the West, but the reverse is also true.

In the recent weeks and months, Eksuzyan has even gone so far as to collect garbage in Sochi's pedestrian zone. Her motto is: "What are you doing for the Olympics?" She says there isn't a provincial city in all of Russia where things are better than they are in Sochi. Eksuzyan says she has traveled to Berlin six times and each time she was impressed by the city's cleanliness and by the punctuality of its regional trains. "Now, I don't have to be envious anymore. The Olympic Games have brought Europe to Sochi," she says.

Eksuzyan still lives with her parents. Not all that long ago, she needed one and a half hours to get to the university by bus. The new train now takes her there in just 45 minutes.

The birth rate in Sochi has climbed by 38 percent in the last seven years and the number of students attending the city's university is likewise growing. A film festival has been launched, there is a new seaside promenade, an investment forum and this fall, the city will host a Formula One race for the first time. Eksuzyan believes the city will profit from the games for years to come.

Indeed, when the athletes head home, they will leave behind three new hospitals, six recreation centers, 19 new cultural centers, 800 kilometers of new power cables, 4,000 freshly built apartments and a ring road, which will relieve traffic in the city center. In the run-up to the games, there were 206 construction projects; fully 176 of them were not directly associated with the Olympics.

Critic Views Games as a Crime

But how high is the price that Sochi will have to pay for the turbo expansion? Stories of unauthorized garbage dumps, shifting houses and immigrant labor working for starvation wages are well known. "The Olympic Games are a tragedy," says Vladimir Kimayev, an angry man with a firm handshake who works for Environmental Watch on North Caucasus.

Kimayev is sitting in a café on the Sochi harbor; one can hear the pounding base from a stage nearby. He says he won't watch the games at all, neither in the stadium nor on television. "Not for a second," he says.

His group was able to block some projects, such as the construction of the bobsled track in a nature reserve. A new harbor for Olympic Park was also prevented as was the construction of a power plant in the middle of the city. "But we couldn't stop the worst," says Kimayev. He is referring primarily to the 48-kilometer-long highway and rail line up to Krasnaya Polyana, near where the skiing events are taking place. It cost at least €6 billion to build.

"The construction workers took out many trees and the ground is no longer stabile," Kimayev says, adding that erosion is a certainty. "The road will begin sliding, as will the hillsides next to it."

'Stress, Dust and Accidents'

He sees the games as a crime. "Seven years of stress, dust and accidents. For nothing," he says. There are still areas of the city with no natural gas or sewage. "The only ones who profit are the contractors," he says. "Any crook could buy a building permit and make whatever he wanted." He says there are even plans to build new casinos in Sochi.

Kimayev's outspokenness has not come without a cost. Last May, Sochi police raided his apartment looking for weapons and he was also stopped in his car by secret service personnel. One of his fellow campaigners has to appear in court one day before the end of the games due to accusations that he damaged a fence during a protest march. He could face up to three years in prison.

But Kimayev is not giving up. Last week, he took part in a demonstration in Akhshtyr, a town in the mountains where construction waste was illegally dumped. "It's about compensation," Kimayev says. "Maybe some things can one day be reversed. It's not too late yet."

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1. optional
peskyvera 02/11/2014
Who/what is the West to criticize Russia? When it comes to corruption there isn't a single country on this planet free from it, including the Vatican. And there isn't a single city, hosting Olympic games, that has come out ahead financially. Ask the IOC why it is sitting on millions of dollars - so that IOC members can travel first class all the way while athletes struggle to be able to compete?
2. optional
eduardo_martinez_o 02/11/2014
We can't follow the western critics like goats, lets wait and see how it come out...let them play !
3. Olympiad
broremann 02/12/2014
the Russians are proud of their oil and the have a good reason to be, we should rejoice with them and wish them well
4. One finger towards Russia and three back at the West
lol1232 02/12/2014
Not sure why the criticism about the games in Sochi. The bid from Russia came in 2007 a lot has happened in the economic world since then, even if Russia did decide to ditch the dollar for the Euro. When Russia bid to host its first Winter Olympics back in 2007, the document quoted an expected cost of around $12 billion now it's 50 Billion...quite a jump in expenses. Everything is more expensive and on top of that they had to build it brand new. With no boycotts like the 1989 Olympics they doubled up on some accommodations (ok, that wasn't such a good idea..privacy in bathrooms is important to Westerners). President Obama/Pentagon had no problems buying helicopters from Russia even though technically we weren't suppose to...but HEY..they were cheap and the Afghans could handle them as opposed to the American ones. But pressure from Congress made sure that didn't happen, the order was canceled. The Pentagon’s overall plan included the purchase of 65 new Mi-17 helicopters from Rosoboronexport for about $1.1 billion. It is not known how many of them have been delivered so far. It's the idea that counts...sometimes cheap stuff from Russia isn't so bad if you can get away with it.....;-(
5. optional
peskyvera 02/12/2014
Furthermore...in the end it was the IOC which decided which country to award the Olympics to. A prestige that comes with a very steep price.
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