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Cover Story

Sochi Olympics: Putin's moment at world podium

Russia's leader, eager to burnish his legacy and boost the country's global standing, has risked a lot of prestige in staging the most expensive Olympics in history.

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With Sochi now finished, Russian businesses are already reorienting their priorities to the huge list of stadiums, roads, hotels, and railroads to be constructed for soccer's 2018 World Cup, which is to be hosted by 11 Russian cities. The opening state budget for that is $20 billion, but if it follows the same trajectory of cost overruns seen in Sochi, it could balloon to as much as $100 billion.

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"Putin understands that he needs to do something to develop the country's infrastructure, but his liberal economics advisers are against this. They believe the money will be stolen and have no effect," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst who's been a frequent adviser to Putin in the past. "Russians are not good, everyday, routine-following soldiers. This characteristic runs deep in our history. We need a crisis, an emergency to mobilize our efforts. Russians always perform better when pursuing big goals, rather than small ones. So Putin creates these challenges, and he believes that it does work. Everything is ready in Sochi, isn't it? Putin does not believe these tales of massive corruption associated with the preparations for Sochi. He thinks it's opposition propaganda."

You don't have to look far in Sochi to find the limitations of this model. One clear sign is the open hostility to the Games expressed by many local inhabitants. They claim the state has destroyed the city's traditional economy, cut down all the trees, damaged electrical and heating systems, and, in some cases, forced them out of their homes to make way for Olympic construction.

"I was so happy when they announced the Games would come to Sochi, but now I haven't got anything nice to say about it at all," says Alexander Krotov, a war veteran who lives in the village of Akhtyr. He claims they confiscated his plot of land, and then turned the village into a virtual wasteland, with trucks rumbling through it around the clock and huge sand pits nearby choking the air with toxic dust. "Don't ask me about the Olympics," he says. "I feel as though I lost everything to them."

Lyudmila Serebryakova, a worker in one of Sochi's traditional seaside health spas, says all the Olympic preparations have discouraged the usual clientele from coming for the past four years, and caused rolling blackouts, traffic snarls, and other problems. Local authorities have warned residents that most small businesses will have to close during the Games. Severe travel restrictions will be in effect.

"We won't be able to leave the district by car, even to visit a relative outside the city," Ms. Serebryakova says. "All we'll get to do is sit at home and watch the Games on TV."

Other concerns loom about what Sochi will do with all that dedicated Olympic infrastructure once the athletes leave. Many of the stadiums, ice rinks, and other venues will be dismantled and shipped off to distant Russian cities, where they will be reassembled for public use. But the more permanent accouterments built for the Games, such as roads, rail links, hotels, and other buildings, will remain. The Kremlin argues that newly refurbished Sochi will become a tourist magnet and a business center for the entire Black Sea region.

"Sochi," Putin told the International Olympic Committee back in 2007, "is going to become a new world-class resort for the new Russia. And the whole world!"

But critics have their doubts. Krasnaya Polyana, the venue where most of the winter sports events will be held, will have enough snow for the Olympics, in part because authorities ordered almost half a million cubic meters of the white stuff stored in special refrigerated facilities over the past two years. But for much of the year, Krasnaya Polyana is a ski resort with no snow – and sometimes none even in winter. Yet the road and rail link serving the resort cost almost $9 billion to build – more than all the preparations for the Vancouver Winter Games combined.

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