Countdown to Sochi 2014

February 19, 2013

Sochi, Russia

By Kai Pfaffenbach

There are a few things you expect as a German photographer from cozy Frankfurt when your boss sends you to cover the test events for the upcoming 2014 Sochi Olympic winter games in Russia.

Will it be heavy snow and cold you have to brave? How difficult will communication be (as I don’t speak Russian)? How will the general feeling of Russians be about Germans a few days after they celebrated the anniversary of their big victory over Hitler’s sixth army in Stalin-(Wolgo)grad during WWII in 1943? Well, after nine days within the 70km (43 mile) perimeter of the 2014 Olympics I can say it is a bit of everything but it is definitely a balancing act between extremes.

When you read the invitation letter of the Organizing Committee you learn that “Sochi2014 will be the most compact Winter Games in the history of the Olympic Movement”. The Games will be held in two clusters. The coastal cluster where all indoor events (speed skating, curling, ice hockey etc..) will be held and the mountain cluster around the (former) village of Krasnaya Polyana and the alpine resort of Roza Khutor where the outdoor venues are located. When the Games start on February 7, 2014, a new rail track should connect the coastal cluster with the mountains. With less than one year to go construction works are well under way but for now a narrow bumpy road is the one and only way to get up and down. Dozens of tunnels and bridges need to be built through the valley along the “wild water” river. Sometimes it seems bizarre when the graveyard of the little suburban village of Krasnaya Polyana is less than 100 yards away from the Olympic lane.

Its about 50km (31 miles) between the city of “Adler” where the Olympic Park is located and the mountain cluster. The host city of Sochi is another 20km (12 miles) down the road from Adler, located on the coast of the beautiful black sea. In Sochi itself is little to see of the Olympic hysteria, but in and around Adler construction work is more intense than I have ever seen before. Here starts the next balancing act between the extremes: when it doesn’t rain or snow it is so dusty that it is difficult to breathe and when it’s wet literally everything is covered in ugly grey-brown mud.

Mischa, my driver and fixer had difficulties steering his little car around potholes up to 15cm (6 inches) deep when he took me outside the Olympic Park at the seafront near Adler. The architecture of the Olympic stadium looks impressive. It’s an outdoor arena for the opening and closing ceremony and it will be used for football afterwards. Just a stone’s throw away things don’t look as pretty. There are houses which are half demolished on official demand as they are within the perimeter of the Olympic Park, scrapped buses or cars and large piles of garbage just next to people who sell oranges or knitwear on the streets of Adler near the Abchazian border to make a living.

The street vendors seemed to be in a good mood. No wonder, there are enough customers.

There must be tens of thousands of workers on the endless numbers of construction sites between the Olympic Park and the mountain cluster. Some of them are living in containers at the construction site, others share rooms in nearby villages. They wait at their bus stops outside the construction sites covered in dust and mud but most of them with a smile. As far as I could understand from our limited way of communication, the workers seemed to be very proud of being part of the huge crew of people getting Sochi and the Krasnaya Polyana region ready for the big games.

Here comes the next balancing act of extremes: I don’t know why a few police along the road I was taking pictures from – as I was not allowed to enter the construction sites – seemed to be less friendly. They obviously didn’t like the fact I took pictures but in the end they didn’t bother me too much. A few days ago a British colleague wasn’t that lucky. He spent about three hours with the police who tried to explain to him why he shouldn’t photograph from a (public) street: “It is for your own safety”! So we will be very careful and make sure we will not get run over by one of the countless lorries that stir up photographers biggest enemy here so far: dust or muddy spray.

So let’s move to the positive side again: the venues! I photographed the test events in the extreme park (freestyle skiing and snowboard) and the bobsleigh and skeleton World Cup at the sliding center. The facilities above Roza Khutor are (obviously, as there hasn’t been anything here before) brand new and set the highest standards. People from the communications department of the Organizing committee and from the press department were superbly helpful.

No wonder, the photo chief of the Games will be Peter Charles, an Australian who, for years, has worked with and for the IOC. He always tries hard to make the best photo positions available. As much as photographing sports was pure fun, the transport side needs a lot of improvement before next year. Sometimes shuttle buses simply didn’t show up, sometimes drivers went to the wrong hotels or apartment buildings and sometimes we were just missing a little bus stop shelter to take cover from the rain and snow. Given the fact that all the construction here must have cost a massive amount of money, it should be possible to find some more Russian rubles, to get a few bus stop huts installed. If not, a smile would help.

But for the so called “law enforcement crew” it seemed impossible for them to put on anything other than a grim face. Far too many times I simply felt not welcome. For me that was the biggest difference from all the other Olympic cities Reuters has sent me to over the past 13 years.

Some of the young enthusiastic volunteers made up for the lack of kindness: they were happy to show off their English language skills and they were curious to know more about the foreigners visiting their country.

For me the balancing act of extremes continued for the next couple of days starting with the security check at the station at the base of the gondola and ending with a reward on the Roza Peak high above Roza Khutor which offered an incredible overview of one of the nicest skiing resorts I have seen so far.

Less than a year before the opening of the Sochi2014 Olympic Winter Games there is still a way to go. There will be tens of thousands of people who have to work hard to make it happen but weighing the pros and cons I expect it will be an “extremely” good games but it could also be “extremely” difficult if some people here don’t change their approach to the foreigners who will come and take part in this Winter Games.

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