Sochi's Sobering Day After: Now What?

There's a broad consensus the city faces an unusually painful reckoning.

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Reuters

It's little surprise that the world gave Russia no time today to celebrate an Olympics successfully ended without catastrophe. By Monday, already we were on to the next critique: What on earth will become of this $51 billion national investment in hotel rooms for a region few tourists visit, in sports venues with no post-Olympic plan, in new roads and railways and shopping malls with zero demand in sight?

Here is The New York Times: Now What? A City Fears a Flameout.

The Washington Post: When the Olympics end, what will become of Sochi?

The New Republic goes with a suggestive slideshow evoking the 1980 Moscow games: What Happened Last Time the Olympics Left Town.

And Salon, to the point: Sochi’s bleak future: What happens to Olympic cities after the Olympics are over?

This is a perpetual question that hangs over the closing ceremony of every Olympics Games. But there's broad consensus that Sochi faces an unusually painful reckoning: The gulf between what the city erected from scratch for this one event and what could plausibly exist here in the coming years is simply enormous.

Sure, there will be a Formula 1 race in October, and World Cup soccer games come 2018. But Sochi didn't simply build out a few sports venues, elevating a local destination into a global one. It built 20,000 new hotel rooms. It built more than 200 miles of new roads and bridges. It devised the entire idea of a winter resort destination in a place where wealthy Russians don't normally vacation, and where other Russians likely won't afford to.

To make matters worse, the most expensive Olympics in history were evidently constructed on the cheap, rendering the venues and hotels expensive to maintain going forward. And the Russian government has made no obvious plans for how to promote what it created. This passage from David Segal, talking with a local resort manager in The New York Times, is alarming:

Some obvious assets are the Olympics themselves and the objects and buildings they have left behind. But hotels have to be a bit coy about promoting these attractions. An intellectual property law passed in Russia at the behest of the I.O.C. prohibits certain things, like the word “Olympics” and representations of the Olympic rings, in advertising.

"So here’s our campaign for the wedding market," said [Brian] Gleeson, opening a ring binder filled with print ads in Russian. "It says, 'Add your ring to our collection in Sochi.' Here’s one for families: 'Bring out the champion in your child.'"

Sochi's situation now is also particularly grim given that the public, and not private investors, wound up paying for nearly all of it – about 90 percent by the Times' accounting.

The city's biggest challenge now may prove to be that these Games were conceived as a singular event and not a civic investment, that they were constructed to the financial benefit of a few and not the long-term gain of the Caucasus. Martin Muller, a professor of geography at the University of Zurich, explained to the Times that this logic was baked in to the construction bids for much of what rose in Sochi over the last several years:

"You inflate the price tag of the project, give part of the money back to the official who awarded you the project, then subcontract out as much of the work as possible, and hide the money you took out,” he said. “That’s a much easier way to earn a profit than drafting a long-term business plan, and taking the risk associated with trying to bring in guests and having to invest in maintenance."

Top image: Mike Blake/Reuters

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.