Wednesday, December 11, 2019
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‘It’s Russia’ maxim explains the Sochi mystery

Sochi, Russia: The official mascots for the Winter Olympics are a polar bear, a hare and a leopard. But walking around the complexes just days ahead of the Games here and what seems more apt is a hand drill, a backhoe and a shovel.

Much of Sochi is a work in progress. There are unfinished hotels, half-finished stores and a mall where the only shop that is open and thriving is a Cinnabon.

Wander the premises over the course of a day and you also get a palpable sense of spectacular ambition, reflected in millions of square feet of new construction, as well as transportation hubs with spiffy trains and shiny buses. You will see an Olympic Park where sporting venues look reassuringly ready.

The combination is singular — an enterprise that is epic, pristine and in many places bewilderingly flawed.

Start with the housing near what is called the Coastal Cluster, home to five ice sports arenas and the stadium for the opening ceremony. To appreciate the hotels in this area it is probably a good idea to think of them not as hotels but rather a rare opportunity to experience life in a centrally planned, Soviet-style dystopia.

Only then will you understand, perhaps even enjoy, the peculiar mix of grandiosity and bungling that defines these buildings. Though called hotels, they look like austere, upscale apartments inspired by the Eastern bloc — Bauhaus meets the Super 8. The exteriors are monolithic and nearly identical, except for sections of paint, in shades of yellow, taupe and mauve.

None of the buildings have names. Instead, they are identified by numbers and, as of last weekend, many of the numbers had not yet arrived. Or they had arrived and have yet to be affixed to the buildings. Instead, they are printed on a piece of paper and taped to a wall.

Breakfast is available in building No 10. But not only is building No 10 hard to find, there is no evidence that it houses a restaurant. You figure out you’re in the right place only by walking around building No 10 a few times and spotting, through a window, a woman in an apron.

On the way in, you see a man on a ladder, fixing something. This is a common sight. There are unopened boxes of air-conditioning parts and other essential hardware all over the place. On Sunday, a man in a lobby was drilling into a ceiling, working above and just to the left of a blinking Christmas tree.

What is with the Christmas tree? “It’s Russia,” shrugs one of many young women who work here.

As an all-purpose explanation for many of the head-scratchers here, ‘It’s Russia’ will do.

It would have been a good answer when this reporter woke on his first night, at three in the morning, to find a man with a Scandinavian accent in his bedroom. This gentleman wanted to know why someone was sleeping in the suite he had been assigned to and for which he had been given a key.

Fair question, and just one of dozens raised by these accommodations.

When will the elevator start elevating again?

Why is the word ‘Mystery’on the bottom of the TV? Is that the brand name? Or a sly invitation to wonder why it does not work?

And finally, when will the front desk have a system so that it does not give out keys to occupied rooms?

After breakfast, jump on a bus to the main media centre. Like much of this city, the bus has the Sochi Olympics slogan emblazoned on its side: ‘Hot. Cool. Yours,’ which sounds like a second-place pitch for the McDLT, the short-lived McDonald’s sandwich that promised to keep the burger side warm and the lettuce side chilled.

The drive takes you past the odd insta-metropolis that this area has become, a hodgepodge of old churches, sleek industrial office buildings and freshly paved highways. You also pass a lot of dirt fields, dotted with newly planted trees, kept upright with twine.

From the media centre, a bus takes you to the Olympic Park, which is open for sneak peeks and team warm-ups. The venues here are arguably the most impressive part of the games, and surely the most important. If the events come off without a snag, none of the other delays and none of the last-minute jackhammering will be remembered.

Unlike some of the housing, which seems to be a play that opened before it had enough time to rehearse, the Ice Cube Curling Center, the Shayba hockey arena and the Adler Arena, where the speedskating will take place, are prepared. The one minor exception is the Bolshoy Ice Dome, where this reporter somehow pulled the handles off two doors.

A couple of stray dogs are trotting around the Bolshoy. The animals have attracted a lot of attention, mostly because of reports that the city has plans to kill them ahead of the games. Either those reports are not true or these animals are more cunning and slippery than their would-be captors.

It could be the latter. One stray managed to penetrate the heavily secured perimeter of the media centre, giving the impression that it had somehow fobbed itself off as a journalist.

The other half of the Olympics, where snow-related events will take place, is a 40-minute bus ride into the mountains. The journey rolls through a series of lengthy tunnels that were carved out for the games and, whatever the environmental effect of this construction, it is hard to argue with the results. The trip is smooth.

What the Russians have built here in what is known as the mountain cluster is akin to a mid- to high-end ski resort, with shops, restaurants and hotels. Or that is what it will be when it is completed.

A photo of a toothsome model is splayed on a panel of the multi-storey Gorky Gorod Mall, and she is delivering her best come-hither look under the words ‘opening soon’. But, for now, there is little hither to come to.

The mall’s doors are open, though the individual stores are not, and someone in a bear costume is dancing on the first floor to some piped-in music. But the ambience is less celebratory than anxious. Shoppers are vastly outnumbered by men wheeling pallets up ramps, or peeling plastic off glass displays, or unboxing products. The Benetton clothing store looks like it needs another week before it can open its doors.

The situation is even worse on a gondola ride up the mountain, to a village that everyone calls 960, the number of metres it sits above sea level. A handful of hotels are here, in a setting so remote and with a vista so gorgeous that it seems more apt for a James Bond villain. And maybe a James Bond villain would have had an easier time with construction. Walk down the village’s brick street and you see luxury hotels with lobbies stuffed with inventory, frenetic employees and unnerved hospitality professionals.

One hotel that is open, though has yet to accept guests, is a Swissotel. There were supposed to be two here, but one fell so far behind schedule that management decided to pull workers from the site and concentrate on finishing one on time.

Stories suggesting that the games are not ready are a now familiar trope of pre-opening ceremony news coverage, but typically those stories cease in the weeks and days before the torch arrives. Sochi is cutting it close.

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, had seven years to build these Olympics, and he staked a record $51 billion (Dh187 billion) and his own reputation to realise his vision.

There are life-after-the-games plans for many of the buildings and sporting arenas here, but, as with every Olympics, the world’s attention will be trained here for only a matter of weeks. With such a tiny window of life on the international stage, one would have expected deadlines to have been met months ago.

So far, the inconveniences have mostly affected the news media, arguably the least sympathetic of the participants here. But there is some trepidation among Olympic officials that outrage will flow if parents of athletes get the no-hot-water treatment. Or if their hotel rooms are not ready.

Oliver Kuhn, a Swissotel manager, seemed surprisingly unstressed under the circumstances. Sitting on a bright purple chair beside an elevator, he watched supplies arrive in his lobby.

“I just came from opening a hotel in Ulan Bator,” he said with a shrug, “so I’m used to it.”