Chill Out, It's the Winter Games

Terrence Burns ©2014

Headlines from today:

“Give the Olympics a Permanent Home” – Bloomberg

“Terrorism and Tension for Sochi, Not Sports and Joy” – New York Times

“Sochi's Already a Mess, for Journalists at Least” – Newsweek

“An Olympic Shame: Vladimir Putin Plays Host To Winter Games” – NPR

I don’t know if I qualify as a true Olympic expert, but I have been around and involved with enough Games, both in front of and behind the magic Olympic curtain, to recognize certain patterns.

For example, virtually every Olympic Games has issues with transport, accommodation, ticketing and yes even security, in the days leading up to and during the first days of the Games. None of this is observed on the broadcast, thankfully, but those in this business have grown accustomed to it and know full well it is normal.  But, by about 7 days into the 17-day event, it all gets figured out and everything works mostly perfectly.  I am looking forward to everyone’s attention turning to the performances of the world’s greatest athletes instead of stories about lost luggage, funny menu translations or vodka.

Which brings me to my point.

Why is everyone “hating on” Sochi?

Do people just not like Russia?  Not like Putin?  Not like Sochi?

Maybe people believe that Sochi and the Russians lied about what they said they were going to do in their bid for the Games.  So, I went back and looked at the Sochi 2014 bid books (which I was honored to help write).  And guess what?  The Sochi bid committee (Russians) did everything they said they were going to do for sport.

Oh, did I forget to mention that the Olympic Games have sport at their heart?

Now, it seems fashionable for every sanctimonious, seasoned sports and Olympic watcher to ask the same question:  How in the world did the IOC give the Games to Putin?  (Note the lack of mention for Sochi, let alone Russia – it is Putin, they decry.)  I understand some of that sentiment. I don’t think the Russians have handled every issue, from LGBT rights, to corruption, to cost overruns to the environment the way others would have handled it.  But…the 2014 Winter Games are not in other countries.  They are in Russia.

So how exactly did the Russians do it?

They put a solid bid together, answering the questions and following guidelines of the IOC’s bid process.  Did they trick everyone?  Deceive the world?  Pull the wool over the Olympic-loving public’s eyes?  Let’s take a look at what they said (Sochi 2014 bid book content in italics below):

The people of Russia invite the world to Sochi to share and celebrate the 2014 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.   Russians have a special passion for winter, for winter sport and for the Olympic Movement.

Well, that seems reasonable and believable.  It is very cold in Russia after all, and Russia and the former USSR won a lot of Olympic medals over the years.

The plans in this Candidature File reflect a unique and historical fusion of the long-term development needs of the Sochi region and the winter sports development needs of the Olympic Movement.  Both sets of objectives fit perfectly within the Sochi 2014 Games plan…Sochi and the Olympic Movement will be beneficiaries of one of the strongest, most wide-ranging legacies ever to result from an Olympic Winter Games.

The Government of the Russian Federation has fully guaranteed and committed - and work has already begun - to deliver all venue, transport, technology, environmental and sport infrastructure necessary to host the 2014 Olympic and Paralympic Games.  The US$ 12 billion “Federal Target Programme for the Development of Sochi” is the key foundation to the plans, which will provide the Olympic Movement with the certainty that all necessary infrastructures for the 2014 Winter Games will be completed on time and on budget. 

 Ah-ha!  They (Russians) said it would cost $12b and it ended up costing $50b!  They (Russians) lied to “us” (whoever “us” is…).

To this I would simply say that I was a member of that team that came up with the $12b budget for the Sochi Games; in fact I hired or recommended most of them.  Where we certain of the number?  Well, not totally, so we padded it a little to make sure (yes, you read that right).  Neither our Russian colleagues nor we had any benchmarks to use or any examples to follow for such an undertaking.  Nothing like Sochi 2014 had ever been attempted before…ever.

Looking back seven years later, should we have used more precise projections, better models to arrive at the $12b figure?  The obvious answer seems to be yes.  But often the obvious answer is not always a feasible one – we used the only information we had at the time.

The point is the $12b figure was vetted and approved by a raft of Olympic facilities, transport, sport, finance and venue and other experts.  So how did $12b become $50b?  Obviously, many people think they know.  Here is my question:  How much does it cost to build an entire city when one has to bring virtually everything in via a broken, barely existing infrastructure system?  I have no idea if it cost $20b, $30b or $50b, but I do know it cost a lot more than anyone, even the experts, thought that it would. And hey, it’s their money.

The Sochi region will be transformed into a modern, world-class, year-round destination for sport, tourism and commerce, and Russia will develop its first world-class, elite alpine sports training and competition infrastructure – a complete winter sports centre that will benefit athletes from the entire Middle East and central Asian region.

That is an admirable goal for a bidding nation.  This was a foundation of  Sochi's messaging and positioning.  Sochi 2014 met the needs of Russia, of the region of central Asia and offered the Olympic Movement the ability to develop sport in an underserved region. That seems fully aligned with the Olympic Charter and the IOC’s stated objectives for bid cities.  The same could not be said for the bid of our magical, and fully developed winter sports competitor, Salzburg.

The bid committee has listened to and incorporated the guidance of the IOC, International Federations, National Olympic Committees and the Russian winter sports federations in developing the plans in this Candidature File.  The plans focus on the needs of the athletes as the cornerstone for the Sochi 2014 vision and Games concept:

  •  Imagine walking or traveling by shuttle from the Olympic Village to any of the new ice venues in less than 5 minutes – all within the protected security zone of the innovative Sochi Olympic Park.
  •  Imagine needing only 40 minutes of travel time from the ice venue cluster to the mountain venue cluster - all via dedicated-Olympic lanes, dedicated-Olympic roads and rail.
  •  Imagine being less than 18 minutes travel time to any mountain venue from the mountain Sub-Village. 
  •  Imagine an Olympic Village placed along the magnificent Black Sea shore in 4-star resort hotels or a Mountain Village nestled among the peaceful forests in 4-star lodges and chalets, all designed to provide the ultimate opportunities for preparation and focus.
  •  Imagine competing in new, state-of-the-art venues that offer ideal conditions for every athlete.

Well, you don’t have to imagine it any longer – the Russians built these things.  And they built all of them for the comfort and convenience of the athletes – and the Olympic Family.  As they said they would.

To me, the recent news coverage about Sochi seems a lot like piling on.  “Look – two toilets side by side!”  “Elevators not working in brand new hotel!”  “Delays at airport!”  “No sheets on my bed!” “My bus was late!” “First order in the Village McDonald’s was wrong!” “I don’t have a shower curtain!”

Here is the reality:  in seven years, Russia has built about 100 new hotels in Sochi and the surrounding area, four new Alpine Resorts, five new power plants for the city and a new sewer system, upgraded the airport and improved or built close to a million of square feet of new roads and sidewalks.  Oh, and they also built eleven state-of-the-art sports venues for the Winter Games.  Eleven (11).  See them here

The legacy of the XXII Olympic Winter Games will endure for decades, forever changing and enhancing the lives of its citizens, as well as profoundly affecting the youth of Russia.  Key legacy components of the Sochi 2014 plans include:

  • The development of the critically-needed alpine, sliding and ski-jumping facilities, which will:
    • Help to broaden the interest and participation of Russian youth in these popular winter sports
    • Provide world-training facilities for Russian elite-level athletes;
    • Provide for the first time venues for national and international alpine competitions in Russia;
  • Create a year-round tourism industry to expand upon existing summer tourism.  This expansion will improve economic conditions for the local population and sustain employment levels year-round;
  • The development of modern entertainment, exhibition, retail and accommodation facilities along the coast, which will ensure that Sochi becomes a world-class resort destination;

Time will tell if this legacy holds true, but you cannot argue they don’t have the hardware in the ground now to do it.

Finally, to the foreign visitors in Sochi who have seemingly never been out of their home state or village:  yes, Russia is different. Your hundreds of daily, naïve tweets and posts about it do nothing but prove that you may not even have basic cable at home.  Russia is unique.  It is not like America, or Japan, or Australia, or France or frankly anywhere else one has ever been; that is why it is interesting.  Russia is its own continent.  Enjoy the differences instead of denigrating them – you might learn something.

First in 1998, then in 2003, 2005, 2007 and in 2009 we conducted research in Russia about the Olympic brand, or about bids we were working on in Russia.  We learned something fascinating from older Russians. Time in Russia is like the country itself – it is vast, it can seem eternal (which it is) and it is relentless.

Many of the older Russians we interviewed told us that they thought Glasnost and Perestroika began with the 1980 Games in Moscow.  They drew a clear, straight line from 1980 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 from the Olympic experience.  They believed that the influx of foreigners into Moscow, even with a boycotted Olympic Games, started an inexorable movement of change and progress that they believe continues to this day.

I remember writing First Deputy Chairman of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation Alexander Zhukov’s speech for Sochi 2014’s presentation in Guatemala.  I asked him what he knew about the Olympic Games.  He said “not much, but I do remember the Moscow Games…it was a different time and a Russia was a different place…I was a student volunteer, mixing and pouring concrete to help build Olympic venues”.  Mr. Zhukov is now an IOC member.  A lot has happened in seven years.

So, I’d like to visit the Russia of 2048, 34 years from now, to see if Sochi 2014 had an impact similar to Moscow 1980.  Maybe the 2014 Games’ influence will be faster – it almost has to, given technology and the Russia of today versus 1980.

Let’s give Sochi and the people of Russia a chance.  They asked for the Games.  They’ve done their absolute best to get ready, and achieved what I believe no other country on earth could achieve in seven years.  And again, they did it with their own money.

Let’s also hope, wish, pray or whatever it is you do when you really want something – that the 2014 Winter Games begin and conclude peacefully.

Chill out – it’s the Winter Games.