In a couple of days' time all eyes will be on Sochi in Russia for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Controversy has dogged the Games right from the beginning. A whopping $51 billion dollars has been spent on the Games, 25 times the cost of the Vancouver Olympic Games in 2010. The opposition claims that up to $30billion of the budget has been pocketed by close associates of President Vladimir Putin. There have been allegations of corruption, environmental malpractice and fears over security.
With an average temperature of 10 degrees in February, Sochi as the host of the Winter Games is an odd choice. It is a Black Sea resort normally favoured as a holiday destination by Russians seeking warmer climes. It is claimed that the city is particularly prized by Putin, who likes to entertain world politicians at his luxury dacha in Sochi. To combat concerns of hosting the Winter Olympics in a region with a subtropical climate, the authorities started stockpiling snow in 2013. In the worst case scenario, organisers will be dependent on 710,000 cubic metres of stockpiled snow and 500 snow guns.
A problem that has been continually flagged up following Sochi's election is its remoteness. Flights are only direct from Turkey and Germany; visitors from the UK must fly via Moscow. Strict tourist visa requirements apply and international visitors must obtain 'spectator passes.' The visa itself will set you back nearly £200.
If you are looking to do some skiing during your break in Sochi then you also might be in for a disappointment. One of the UK's largest ski tour operators Crystal Ski warns that availability is extremely limited due to the number of test events before and during the games. Those considering hitting the slopes should wait until late March after the Olympics. Also the official website fails to mention that you are not allowed to ski during the Games due to heightened security.
Games venues are spread out across the region with the Mountain and Coastal clusters up to 40 km apart. The main skiing resort is also located more than an hour's drive from Sochi. There are also only a handful to hotels which can accommodate visitors; they have all been booked up years in advance to house delegates, accredited press and athletes. On the mountain of Rosa Khutor, where the flagship skiing events will take place, there are only 11 hotels which are all full. Quite where spectators, let alone international tourists, are supposed to stay seems to have been overlooked.
Visitors to the Winter Games can expect to pay upward of £160 per night at the peak of the games in hotels. According to research by Trivago into 293 hotels in the region, this price is a 144 per cent increase on the average price of £67. Tickets for events cost anything from £9-£725, with half of them going for less than £90. Although tickets seem reasonable, a trip to Sochi is still going to set you back a considerable amount when you consider flights, transport and accommodation.
The Games have also accrued a lot of criticism over its environmental practises. It has been reported that Russia broke its 'Zero Waste' Olympic Pledge when it emerged that the state-run rail monopoly had been dumping construction waste into an illegal landfill, leading to concerns over contamination of the water supply. Environmental concerns have been prevalent right from the beginning. Environmentalists also cite how many of the new Olympic buildings have been built in the Sochi National Park.
In addition to this, the Olympics are being held on the site of the largest Russo-Circassian massacre on the 150th anniversary of their extradition. This has become a rallying point for thousands of Circassians who have been protesting against the Sochi Olympics since its selection. Proximity to the volatile Caucasus region has also become a sticking point, particularly in light of the recent tragic bombings in Volgograd which have gone a way to highlighting underlying tensions in the country. When questioned about security fears, Putin said "security is to be ensured by some 40,000 law enforcement and special services officers. We will protect our air and sea space, as well as the mountain cluster. I hope things will be organised in such a way that they do not catch the eye and will not, so to say, depress the participants in the Olympic Games." Somewhat in opposition to the Olympic spirit of international cooperation and understanding, the FBI have confirmed they are deploying agents in Sochi. The US ski and snowboard teams have hired a crisis-response team with five aircraft on standby to evacuate US athletes in the event of a terror attack.
Russia is used to garnering international criticism over the introduction of the controversial 'gay propaganda' bill and has done nothing to steer clear of this with its actions over the 'Pride House' project. First organised at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, it is a location for LGBT athletes, volunteers and spectators to congregate to promote equality in sport. However, any attempt to bring Pride House to Sochi was shot down by Russia's Ministry of Justice who alleged that it would be propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientation and would undermine the security of Russian society. Despite the Olympic charter stating that "any form of discrimination ... on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement" (Sixth Fundamental Principle of Olympism), the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has failed to challenge the Russian authorities over this issue.
This February, there will be an unrivalled level of foreign interest in Russia. There is no doubt that Sochi will be full of sporting triumphs and many heroes and heroines will rise victorious from the snow and ice. But sport is also meant to transcend politics. In the case of Sochi, the controversies surrounding the Games have made it a political affair. With the recent release of high-profile prisoners like Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot, it seems that Russia is trying to improve its international reputation before the start of the Winter Games. But the latest issues surrounding Sochi have done nothing to quieten sceptics. So far Sochi seems to be a missed opportunity to showcase Russia's progress, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the international community.
The XXII Winter Olympic Games will be celebrated in Sochi, Russia from February 7 to February 23, 2014.
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