On July 4, the 111 members of the International Olympic Committee will gather in Guatemala City to decide who will host the 2014 Winter Olympics. It’s expected to be a very close vote.
Two of the candidates, Salzburg, Austria and PyeongChang, South Korea, made the shortlist in 2003, when the 2010 Games were awarded to Vancouver and Whistler.
But the third candidate city, Sochi, Russia, also has a history of bidding for the Winter Olympics, and it may have more in common with Vancouver and Whistler than Salzburg or PyeongChang.
Sochi is a resort-spa town on the Black Sea, at about the same latitude as Bucharest and Nice. Palm trees line the streets and mineral waters bubble up from the ground. Spas and more than 80,000 tourist beds are evidence that Sochi has been a place of rest and recovery for Russian workers since Czarist times.
Sochi is also the gateway to the North Caucasus, a spectacular mountain range that covers 65,000 square kilometres between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, straddling Russia and Georgia. The tallest peak is Mount Elbrus, which at 5,642 metres is the highest point on the continent.
Sochi was a candidate to host the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics, but the current bid arose from the fierce competition for the 2012 Summer Games. Madrid, New York, Paris, London and Moscow made up the shortlist of candidates for 2012, and in a showdown of such great cities of the world the Russians knew the odds of landing the Summer Olympics were slim.
So just before the vote the president of the Russian Olympic Committee and the Minister of Sport, former NHL star Viacheslav Fetisov, had a question for Paul Mathews of Whistler-based Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners.
“These two guys came to me and said, ‘Paul, we’re probably going to lose the summer Olympic bid, the competition is just so severe. Do you think (Sochi) has any potential for an Olympic Winter Games?,” Mathews recalls.
“I said, ‘well, it would be fairly interesting to move the site 1,500 km south — lose the Summer Games in Moscow and hold the Winter Games in Sochi.’ Sochi is the warmest town in Russia, sort of like Victoria, but it’s mostly the influence of the (Black) sea.”
The Russians didn’t have to go far to consult Mathews. Ecosign has been working in Russia for a decade.
In 2000 the Russian government, concerned about economic development and the amount of money Russian citizens were spending on vacations abroad, contracted Ecosign to do an evaluation of the Caucasus and the potential for ski resort development.
Ecosign identified the Mzymta Valley, not far from Sochi, as having the potential to be another Trois Vallee, the French ski area that handles 50,000 skiers a day. One rudimentary ski area, Alpica-Service, already existed. Several other sites were identified as having potential and two were given priority: Rosa Khutor (see Alta States) and Psekahko Ridge.
The federal government then suggested to some of the largest companies in Russia that reinvesting in their homeland was a patriotic and politically wise thing to do. Gazprom, the state-owned natural gas and oil company, has invested $300 million in Psekahko Ridge. Interross, a huge holding company with interests in mining and forestry, headed by Vladimir Potanin and his partner Mikhail Prokhorov, took on Rosa Khutor. Interross has since invested $262 million in the first phase of development.
But the development commitment wasn’t finalized until a couple of months before the vote on the 2012 Summer Olympics, when Fetisov approached Mathews about the Sochi region’s potential for hosting the Winter Olympics.
“Anyway, I said I really don’t know, we didn’t study it for that,” Mathews recalls, “but we have the whole (Mzymta) valley in our computers and we have worked on a lot of Olympics and world championships. We’ll take a look.”
Ecosign was given a tight timeline to come up with a plan that incorporated the Winter Olympics.
“So in two months we had to study this whole valley. And actually we came up with an Olympic concept.”
“We said the snow events should be up here and the ice events should be down in Sochi, where all the beds and infrastructure are. But that’s sort of proven with Vancouver-Whistler. It’s sort of a new concept, in a way, but you have the sea cluster and the mountain cluster, as they’re calling this one.”
Specifically, the alpine ski and snowboard events are proposed for Rosa Khutor, the Nordic events on Psekahko Ridge, and the alpine Olympic village at Krasnaya Polyana, an existing village in the valley.
The IOC’s evaluation report of the three 2014 Olympic candidates says of the Russian bid: “Sochi proposes a very good concept based around an ice cluster and a mountain snow zone 49 km/50 minutes apart.” The report recognizes a strong “Gateway to the Future” vision which includes Russia’s first world-class ski resort and development of Krasnaya Polyana as the country’s first training centre for multiple winter sports.
That’s encouraging, but the evaluation report says the other two candidates each propose “an excellent concept based around two zones…” The report also notes that in addition to the two zones Salzburg’s proposal includes one stand-alone venue (the sliding track in nearby Germany) and PyeongChang proposes two stand-alone venues.
Mathews says being one of three finalists for the 2014 Olympics has helped push development of Rosa Khutor and Psekahko Ridge, although it was going to happen regardless.
“As a result of being a finalist I’d have to say a lot of things have come a long way,” says Mathews. “It’s sort of like winning by bidding. The federal government has committed $12 billion in infrastructure for the whole Sochi tourism complex. They’ve upgraded all these roads, opened new tunnels, they’re cleaning the streets and they’re promising now to get the electrical supply doubled. They’ve also consolidated our land holdings on Rosa Khutor and Psekahko Ridge — they’re leased lands, there’s no private lands.”
Psekahko Ridge should open in December, while Rosa Khutor is scheduled to open in December 2008. With the existing Alpica-Service, that will mean three ski areas in the valley by the winter of 2008-09.
“I would say that’s going to be the start of the new era of Russian ski area development, having these three,” says Mathews. “And probably having three ski areas together will be stronger than any one on its own.”
The first commercial flights from Frankfurt to Sochi began in March of this year. Summer tourism is already established in Sochi, so year-round destination status is coming. Winning the right to host the 2014 Olympics would give that status a boost.
“These areas are under construction and they’re going to be built anyway,” Mathews says. “I suspect if they lose 2014 they’ll re-bid for 2018.”
But whether Sochi gets the Olympics or not, winter sports and tourism are coming to the Caucasus.
“There’s money going in here like I can’t think of anywhere else in the world,” says Mathews. “They’re very much underway.”