Thursday, July 05, 2007

the first russian winter games

The big news in sports yesterday, as far as I was concerned, was the awarding of the 2014 Winter Olympics and Paralympics to Sochi, Russia. By all accounts, Vladimir Putin's presence at the IOC meetings in Guatemala City (!) did wonders to secure the choice of his country's bid over Salzburg, Austria and Pyongchang, South Korea.

I'm pretty happy with the result. Although none of the three cities has ever hosted an Olympics before, Austria has done so twice, both in Innsbruck (1964 and 1976). Obviously, Austria is accustomed to, and well-suited for, hosting winter sports. Most of the facilities they would've used for the Games were already in place, a major selling point for their Olympic bid. But picking Salzburg would have been a safe yet boring choice. Athletes in most of the winter sports already compete in Austria all the time, and with the exception of Switzerland it is essentially the only country where alpine skiing is a major, front-page sport. In short, holding another Winter Games in Austria would do little to boost the popularity of winter sports by creating new fans.

Neither Russia nor Korea is known internationally as a winter sports destination, and yet both would desperately like to become one. Both Sochi and Pyongchang have invested millions of dollars to attract skiers and snowboarders, even hiring top ski-resort managers from the Alps and Rockies to oversee their operations. Putin himself is known to enjoy skiing at Krasnaya Polskana, the mountain range near the Black Sea that will host all the snowsports for the Sochi Games, and when I visited Pyongchang last year for disabled World Cup races, the slopes were crawling with wealthy business people from Seoul and beyond. Pyongchang's major ski resort, Yongpyong, has taken things to a typically East Asian level of excess, installing amusement-park rides at the base area and providing skiers with high-pressure air hoses outside the lodge to clean the snow off their equipment.

I guess that's part of the reason I favored Sochi over Pyongchang: the Koreans just seemed to be trying too hard. It's certainly a plus that they'd already hosted well-organized World Cup events in alpine and disabled alpine skiing, and they'd already put in a runner-up bid for the 2010 Games (they lost out to Vancouver). But to some extent the Koreans were trying to pass off cubic zirconium as diamonds. From my experience, Korea is just not a world-class winter wonderland. It's cold, but not particularly snowy. (When we there, in January, the only snow to be seen was the manmade stuff on the ski hill.) The mountains are no taller than the Appalachians. And the host city they'd selected is not so much a city as a collection of villages, full of tacky new brass-and-marble hotels, not charming chalets. And as tasty as Korean food can be, the stuff they fed us athletes there was pretty sub-par.

Sochi, on the other hand, is terra incognita for most winter athletes outside Russia. To my knowledge, it has never hosted a major international ski or snowboard event, although I'm sure hockey is popular there. But my impressions of the place are pretty favorable. The city of Sochi itself is a resort town on the Black Sea, with palm trees and a mild climate year-round. But the surrounding mountains, which are less than an hour's drive from town, are snowy and huge: Mt. Elbrus, at 18,000 feet, is taller than any other in Russia or Europe. In footage from ski movies I've seen, the Krasnaya Polskana range is a powdery paradise, with some of the most extreme lift-serviced terrain anywhere on the planet. In short, the only reason Sochi is not already known outside Russia as a winter sports destination has to be economic or political. Russian democracy is still new, and negative stereotypes about the country still abound. In deciding as it did, the IOC has given Russia a huge opportunity to show the world how far it's come and to transform its Black Sea region into a true international tourism destination. Let's hope the Russians take advantage of it.

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