One of the fascinating and positively captivating aspects of the Olympic Games is that no two editions are ever alike; each and every one vastly different with a distinct aura embodying the spirit, culture, norms and geography of the host nation and the region itself. When the International Olympic Committee awarded the XXII Olympic Winter Games to Sochi – a Russian resort stretching along the sprawling shores of the Black Sea with magnificent peaks looming high above – they ventured into uncharted territory, while marking a series of firsts.
Sochi 2014 will be the first Winter Games contested in Russia. They will also be one of the most compact in Winter Olympic history, where, for the first time, a purpose-built Olympic Park – referred to as the Coastal Cluster – will be home to all indoor ice competition venues, each within a short stroll of one another. In addition, Sochi 2014 will open a new chapter in Olympic history as they will be the first Games presided over by the recently elected ninth IOC President, Thomas Bach.
In Sochi, skiers, skaters, sledders and snowboarders will entertain and dazzle while pushing their physical limits on snow and ice over 17 days. The programme features a total of 98 events in seven sports, including 12 new events that will make their Olympic debut. Over 2,500 athletes from more than 80 nations are expected to compete.
Sochi’s Coastal Cluster is comprised of five purpose-built arenas and the splendid 40,000-capacity Fisht Olympic Stadium, where the Opening and Closing ceremonies will be held.
The visually stunning stadium is the first large-scale structure in Russia with a translucent polycarbonate roof, with the unique design of the venue allowing many spectators in the future to enjoy views of both the Caucasus Mountains in the north and the Black Sea to the south while in their seats.
Board a high-speed train in Sochi and in about 40 minutes you will be in the vastly contrasting surroundings of the Western Caucasus Mountains, home to the Mountain Cluster.
All outdoor snow sport events, as well as the sliding events of bobsleigh, luge and skeleton, will be contested at the five venues, which are all in close proximity and situated just above the colourful mountain village of Krasnaya Polyana and the Mzymta River, which flows through it.
The new venues in the Coastal and Mountain Clusters have already hosted elite sporting competitions, with many staging World Cup events during the 2012/13 season, enabling Sochi 2014 organisers to test key Games-time operations. Dmitry Chernyshenko, the President and CEO of the Sochi 2014 Organising Committee, spoke to Olympic Review about Russia’s final preparations for the rapidly approaching Olympic Winter Games.
“Our focus now is on operational readiness,” says Chernyshenko. “Operational readiness training is underway and we are putting the experience gained during the test events to good use to ensure Russia’s first Winter Games are truly memorable for everyone involved.”
Come February, all those preparations will become a reality and nowhere will the intensity be more heated than at the Bolshoi Ice Dome, where ice hockey stars will clash feverishly. Expectations will be lofty for the hosts, as Russian icons Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk seek to lead their nation to its first Olympic gold medal as an independent nation (although Russian players did feature prominently in the Unified Team that won gold in Albertville in 1992). Formidable opponents to Russia will include the defending Olympic champions Canada, the 2013 World Champions Sweden, a hard-working and opportunistic United States squad, perennial hockey powers Finland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, in addition to an ever-improving, cohesive group from Switzerland.
Figure skating, which will be on display at the aesthetically pleasing Iceberg Skating Palace, will be among the most anticipated sports. Russian skaters, especially in pairs, will strive to uphold the country’s rich history and tradition in the sport. Three-time reigning world champion Patrick Chan of Canada will be aiming to become his country’s first men’s individual figure skating gold medallist, while the affable Yuna Kim, from the Republic of Korea, is determined to defend her Olympic gold medal in what she says will be her final competitive season.
Alpine skiing will be among the showcase sports, with races taking place on the slopes of the Rosa Khutor Alpine Centre – a world-class ski resort packed with exceptional terrain and a summit elevation of 2,320 metres at Rosa Peak. Rosa Khutor has been equipped with one of the most expansive snow-making systems in the world and is poised to become the largest ski resort in Russia.
Racers kick out of the gate with the signature men’s downhill on Sunday 9 February, just two days after the Opening Ceremony. The world’s elite downhillers will descend at incredible speeds, while testing their technical skills and endurance on the energy-sapping 3,500-metre long track designed by Olympic champion Bernhard Russi. Boasting a humongous vertical drop of 1,075 metres, the Rosa Khutor downhill course will keep racers at their threshold with four spectacular jumps, some launching competitors more than 50 metres down the mountain.
The challenging course was first tested during an FIS Alpine Ski World Cup in February 2012, receiving praise from the tour’s leading racers, including the USA’s five-time Olympic medallist Bode Miller.
“The set-up of the hill is good, the jumps are awesome – they’re huge, but they have good steep landings and straight take-offs so I think it sets up for a great natural downhill,” said the veteran American racer after his descent of the Rosa Khutor course. “The reality is that a downhill should be a challenge. If it doesn’t challenge athletes then you won’t see their best and an Olympic downhill has to be the real thing.”
In men’s Alpine skiing, Austrian wunderkind Marcel Hirscher, Norwegian ace Aksel Lund Svindal and “Mr. Giant Slalom” Ted Ligety of the United States should lead the chase for medals in Sochi. On the women’s side, 2012-13 overall World Cup champion Tina Maze of Slovenia comes off a stellar record-breaking season and possesses the talent, versatility and drive to medal in four or possibly five events.
Twelve new events, meanwhile, were added to the Olympic programme in Sochi, with ski halfpipe, ski slopestyle, snowboard slopestyle and snowboard parallel slalom sure to receive high marks from the younger generation of Olympic enthusiasts. Female ski jumpers will take flight at the RusSki Gorki Jumping Center under the lights on 11 February, setting yet another Olympic Games precedent, as the women compete for the first time in a sport that has been contested among men since the inaugural Winter Games in 1924.
Biathlon mixed relay, the figure skating team event and the luge team relay will showcase athletes of both genders competing together on one team – another first in Sochi. At the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park – the joint venue for freestyle skiing and snowboarding – eight of the 20 medal events will be contested at night under the lights. The stylish venue was designed with six courses sharing two finish areas. “It is the best venue that I’ve ever seen in my life,” said US moguls world champion Patrick Deneen. “Having this moguls course, halfpipe and aerials coming into the same stopping area is really, really cool.”
Just a short walk from the halfpipe, moguls and aerials finishing area, ski and snowboard slopestyle – in which competitors will attempt a wide array of creative tricks while navigating various jib features and jumps – and ski and snowboard cross will certainly entertain.
Thrills and spills are guaranteed when ski and snowboard cross racers tear down the mountain while shoulder-to-shoulder, along a course packed with banked turns, rolls, a slew of jumps and other tricky terrain. Canadian skier Kelsey Serwa, winner of last winter’s ski cross test event at Rosa Khutor, offered her thoughts about the 1121-metre Olympic piste: “The course is awesome. We’re running on the snowboard track, which is proving to be good and there are some big jumps with long landings, which is really nice.”
“We have thoroughly tested our sports venues and infrastructure, as well as our procedures for interaction with the different teams on the ground,” says Chernyshenko. “The test events were a fantastic dress rehearsal for next year.”
Paramount to the overall success of any Olympic Games is the host city’s volunteer programme. In Sochi, nearly 25,000 volunteers will be doing their part to help ensure that athletes, officials and visitors enjoy a memorable 17 days. Efrosinia Bondarchuk, 23, is a Sochi volunteer who has made her presence felt at numerous test and countdown events over the past few years. The recent graduate of Kuban State University from nearby Krasnodar is thankful for the opportunity.
“It has been a good start for my future career,” says Bondarchuk. “Maybe it is the only chance in my lifetime to meet all these people and get this knowledge and experience. I have made many friends from all around the world. “It will be a unique experience, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of such a very important event.”
Ahead of the Games, the Sochi 2014 Olympic Torch Relay is set to become the longest in Winter Olympic history. Having begun its domestic journey in Moscow on 7 October, approximately 14,000 torchbearers will have carried the flame over 65,000 kilometres, through 83 regions of Russia, before the cauldron is lit at the Opening Ceremony on 7 February in Sochi.
Along its 123-day journey, the nearly one-metre tall, 1.8kg chrome torch – which is adorned with red detail – will travel by car, train, plane, reindeer sleigh and Russian troika, passing through around 2,900 towns and cities. “The torch descended to the bottom of Lake Baikal, rose to the top of Mount Elbrus, visited the North Pole and even flew into space,” says Chernyshenko. “We will really amaze the world.”
In November, the Olympic torch travelled into outer space. At the International Space Station (ISS), Russian cosmonauts took the unlit torch on an unprecedented spacewalk. In yet another Olympic first, the three mascots representing Sochi 2014 were selected by a public vote during a live television broadcast in Russia. The polar bear, hare and leopard will warmly welcome athletes, guests and visitors to Sochi.
The Sochi 2014 Cultural Olympiad has also been successfully engaging the Russian public’s interest in the Games, with millions of people across the country participating in a wide range of cultural events since the launch in 2010, including concerts, festivals, shows, films, exhibitions, and art installations – each offering the best that Russia’s cultural scene has to offer. Sochi 2014 organisers have also been looking beyond the Games, to ensure that the region enjoys lasting benefits from hosting the Games. “We’ve dedicated ourselves to thinking long-term, to focus on a true Games legacy that will not only rejuvenate the city of Sochi, but will also contribute to the economic, cultural and environmental development of the Krasnodar region,” explains Chernyshenko.
In addition to the construction of several permanent sporting venues that will bring further elite events to Sochi, the city’s infrastructure has also been significantly upgraded as a result of the Games, with new railways, roads and hotels all built and thousands of jobs created. Come 7 February, however, it will be the Games themselves that take centre stage on what should be a stirring evening in Sochi with the eyes of the world watching, as IOC President Bach officially declares open the XXII Olympic Winter Games. International Olympic Committee founder Pierre de Coubertin said, “Holding an Olympic Games means evoking history.” The city of Sochi will do exactly that: reaching the crescendo of its long journey toward hosting these Games when the magic of the Olympic flame arrives and the cauldron is lit on a spirited February evening.
As is the beauty of the Olympic Games, ultimately, it will be the intensely driven, fervently passionate, immensely talented and vastly diverse athletes from around the globe, that are the artists who paint history on Sochi’s Olympic canvas.