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Winter Olympics 2014: Why Sochi is such a unique host for the Games

The events may seem strange enough from the comfort of your living room, but that’s nothing compared to the oddity of the place itself

On a warm evening in Sochi, artist Marc Ahr was working on a watercolour panorama of the Winter Games at an outdoor cafe in the heart of the coastal Olympic venue. The St Petersburg-based artist, who has painted every Olympics since 1992, said he barely recognised Sochi from when he came here to scope it out last year.

 “I was so distressed by what I saw then,” Mr Ahr said. “I didn’t see what I could paint because there was nothing here.”

Designed as a grandiose party for Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the Olympics have placed this languid beach resort town on the international map virtually overnight, pumping it full of new hotels, highways and garish sporting venues.

Foreigners, once a rare sight among the sunburned tourists from inner Russia, have descended on the city, giving the downtown area an oddly cosmopolitan feel. Outside the sporting venues, the city has taken on a carnival atmosphere, visible in everything from the policemen standing on every corner to the journalists who swarm the town’s gay club.

Here The Independent takes a look at some of the things that make Sochi such a unique host for the Games.

Clash of cultures

This is not the first time Sochi has been catapulted to prominence: After Joseph Stalin built a dacha here in 1937, the town became a favourite vacation spot for both party elites and proletarian workers, filling up with health spas designed in the Stalinist Empire style.

While the Olympic clusters on the coast and in the mountains have been built from scratch, the fans who have had to seek lodging in other parts of Sochi have encountered a typical Black Sea beach town, full of unusual sights.

The promenade along the pebble beaches in the Adler district is lined with stands selling barbecued meat on skewers, simple cafés with mayonnaise-laden “salads”, shops selling beer and smoked fish or sweetened wine on tap, and sunbathing platforms built on the cement groynes that extend from the shore every 20m.

Tourists should beware of the well-tanned men offering photographs with exotic creatures like monkeys, parrots or eagles, as they’ll demand a fee once you snap the shutter.

Language lessons

Wendy Wickstrom, a sports fan from California who has gone to every Olympics since the Atlanta Summer Games in 1996, said she typically communicated with Russians “only when I pull out my phone and translate”. She has gone out on the town a few times, but said the party scene wasn’t quite as good as the London Olympics. But Fukai Takayuki, from Japan, on his way to watch the men’s figure-skating, admitted the Russians’ superior drinking prowess. “They are very strong,” he said.

Slava, from Chelyabinsk, was waving a Russian flag featuring a picture of his home town’s famous meteorite. He said the shared bond of the fan was greater than any language barrier. “Of course, I communicate with everyone,” he said. “I’m into sports.”

Behind the scenes

The Olympic Village, in the coastal and mountain clusters, houses more than 7,000 athletes from all over the world. An Olympic Village employee, who asked not to be named since she is not allowed to speak to the press, said that athletes typically socialised in the cafeteria or on the buses that ferried them across the sprawling grounds.

The athletes, coaches and officials staying in the village come in two types, she said –those who think the service and accommodation are great, usually people from smaller countries, and those who complain about every little thing. “The Russians complain the most of all,” she said. “They have lots of requests; they think they should feel at home … They go on about insignificant complaints instead of concentrating on competing.”

However, the staff can be guilty of annoying the athletes as well, she said, and volunteers at the village have been admonished numerous times for asking for too many photographs and autographs.

Sex is always a big part of Olympic Village life, and Sochi seems to be no exception. This week, the US snowboarder Jamie Anderson suggested that athletes were spending much of their down time on the hook-up app Tinder. Previous reports said Olympic Committee officials would be distributing 100,000 condoms to athletes.

Out and proud

While the athletes are keeping much of their recreational activities confined to the Olympic Village, the sizable contingent of journalists at the Games have decided to mix work and play at Sochi’s most popular gay club, Mayak, which has featured in countless Olympic stories.

The venue’s owner, Andrei Tanichev, said he gave interviews almost every day and the number of journalists and other out-of-towners in his club had risen dramatically in the lead-up to the Games. “There are a lot of foreigners, they appeared when the Olympic venues appeared,” Tanichev said. “We had to raise our entrance fees.”

Mayak and Sochi’s other gay club, Zerkala, offer nightly shows by drag queens. Performers often ask who is in the audience on any given night, and foreign guests typically get an extra wink or even a kiss.

Police state

Another fact of life in Sochi is the ubiquitous security presence. Up to 100,000 law enforcement, security service and army personnel are reportedly patrolling the Sochi region during the Olympics in an effort to prevent any terrorism spilling over from the restive North Caucasus region next door. A police officer can be seen at nearly every major road junction.

Also on patrol at major transport hubs are some 800 Cossacks, members of the military caste that has seen a resurgence in recent years, especially in the Krasnodar Territory that includes Sochi, where the local governor is himself a Cossack colonel.

Meanwhile, people in the mountain cluster have reported seeing snipers in snow-camouflage uniforms up in the hills. “If you go off to take a piss, you’ll probably be stopped by a police officer. The next level out is the security service personnel, and then come the special forces,” said Alexei Petrov, a Sochi taxi driver and former army officer.

All dogs go to heaven?

Before the Olympics, stray dogs, not police, were Sochi’s most ubiquitous sight. But in the lead-up to the Games, reports emerged that city hall had hired a private company to trap as many stray canines as possible before the event, provoking an outpouring of support for the animals.

Activists began ferrying dogs to Moscow, and an oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, paid for many of the estimated 2,000 dogs to be taken to a temporary shelter. Not everyone misses the dogs, however. Sochi’s equally sizable population of stray cats now has the run of the town for sunbathing.

 But despite all the strange happenings around the Games, Mr Ahr praised the festive atmosphere and the fan support. “I feel the whole country is behind these Games,” he said. “People have come from all over the country, more than in any other Olympics. It makes it feel like the Summer Games.”