In 2014, the Russian seaside resort of Sochi hosted the Winter Olympics. With a price tag of $50 billion, they were the most expensive Olympic Games ever. The event was intended to showcase the triumphant return of Vladimir Putin to the international stage, two years after his re-election as Russian president. Today, what has become of these sprawling sites? Our reporter returned to Sochi.
In 2007, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the 2014 Olympic Winter Games to Sochi, kicking off a profound transformation of the southern Russian city. Initially estimated at $12 billion, the cost of hosting the Games kept soaring to reach $50 billion. One corruption scandal followed another, while the authorities and companies sharing the works were less than transparent about the budget. But in the end, Sochi pulled it off. After five years of building work day and night, the city had brand new infrastructure to boast of: more than 550 kilometres of roads and railway lines, dozens of hotels, several new ski resorts, a conference centre and no less than six Olympic stadiums.
But even before the Sochi Games’ closing ceremony, the eyes of the world were already on neighbouring Ukraine, where the pro-Russian President Victor Yanukovich was ousted by the Maidan revolution in February 2014. The following month, Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and fell out with the West, leaving a bitter aftertaste to the panache of the Sochi Games. In the city, however, building work continued in order to turn the Olympic infrastructure into a site suitable for welcoming tourists. For as well as the Olympics, Vladimir Putin had another project in mind: giving Russia a world-class tourist resort to attract holidaymakers from Russia and abroad.
Up to 20 years to pay off cost of Games
The beach in summer, the ski slopes in winter: Sochi’s subtropical climate makes it an ideal location for tourists. The Russian president himself owns a villa there. His charm offensive towards his compatriots seems to have worked: last year, 6.4 million tourists visited Sochi, most of them Russians. Vladimir Putin spared no expense on promoting the city: sport, cultural and geopolitical events now take place throughout the year in Sochi.
But although successes are undeniable, there are also difficulties - especially financial ones for investors who are struggling to repay the cheap loans granted by VEB, a Russian state-owned bank that finances major government projects. Experts estimate that it will take at least 15 to 20 years to pay off the colossal expenses incurred for the Games. Nevertheless, for the people of Sochi, the Games have breathed new life into their city.