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.”

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power