Sochi at the halfway point and a 'New Russia'

SOCHI, Russia -- It should have taken maybe 15 minutes to make it Monday morning from our hotel near the central business district out to the airport. It took two hours. Of course, that was leaving the hotel on the 10 o'clock bus, which actually left way closer to 10:45 a.m., but why quibble over such details? Especially, as it was later related by other friends, when it took four hours to get to the airport on the 11 o'clock bus.

It's not as if there was some catastrophic accident that had blocked the roads, either. Just some rain and a whole bunch of cars going nowhere fast. Asking why it took two hours, or four -- there's no answer.

"It's normal in Russia," a Russian friend who was also on the 10 o'clock bus said of our two-hour crawl. She shrugged her shoulders.

Of all the things that get said and written about Sochi in the next few years, leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, there's this: See those 2014 Games as catalyst for a new normal in modern Russia.

There are lots of ways to define "legacy," a word much used in Olympic circles. The way the Russians are defining it -- particularly since the entire project in Sochi is a start-up -- makes for a compelling study.



Russia is not going to be changed overnight because of the Olympics.

But Russia assuredly is going to be changed. Some of those changes are already clearly visible now -- not quite three and a half years since Sochi won the right to stage the 2014 Game, about three and a half years to go until the opening ceremony. Some are more subtle and may take at least a generation to realize.

The visible change is easy: all the construction in and around Sochi, the seaside Olympic Park for the ice sports and the snow sports cluster in the mountains at what's called Krasna Polyana, about 35 miles away.

At the figure skating and short-track speed skating building, they've already screwed in 500 tons of bolts. The top row of beams is being hoisted up into place now.



A few steps away, at the larger of the two ice hockey buildings, they've poured nearly 110,000 cubic yards of concrete.

All in, estimates are that it will take $6 billion to build all the Olympic infrastructure -- and that's only about a quarter of the sum being poured into developing the region by 2014, as the official Russian news agency Tass reported Wednesday. If the Beijing 2008 experience is any example, such enormous figures will ultimately prove low-ball estimates.

Sochi is a Black Sea resort with hundreds of what the Russians call "sanitoriums" and Americans might call "spas." It's a well-established summer fun spot. The 2014 game plan is to make it a winter destination as well.

This isn't Greece in the run-up to the 2004 Summer Games in Athens or, for that matter, India in the lead-up to this month's Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. They're emphatic in Sochi that the buildings will get built on schedule -- everything in the Olympic Park in 2012 but for the central stadium, and that in 2013.

"I'm not afraid to show you anything," said Murat Akhmadiev, a supervising engineer for Olimpstroy, the government agency overseeing building at Olympic Park, said during a walk-around a few days ago.

Vladimir Putin himself made a little tour on Wednesday. Knowing that he was coming by to scrutinize your work -- that's what you might call motivation.

Clearly, there's a sense of urgency among the construction crews working 24/7 at Olympic Park. At the same time, there's an undeniable sense of confidence, too -- reflected in the six-month-old stray puppy that crews have adopted as the site mascot.

His name is Tzosik -- a Russian diminutive for "Tzentralnyi Stadion,"  Central Stadium.



In wrapping up its visit this week to Sochi, it was little surprise to hear the IOC's inspection team -- the so-called coordination commission -- prove upbeat, commission chair Jean-Claude Killy saying at a news conference Thursday, "Every time we meet with President [Dmitry] Medvedev or Prime Minister Putin, we have a complete sense that this project is Priority No. 1 nationally."

Will the traffic be way, way better by 2014? Undoubtedly.

Will there be other and unforeseeable challenges to come? Plainly.

Will mistakes be made? Yes. Nothing is perfect.

Is Sochi one of the more interesting experiments in Olympic history? Sure, in the manner of Beijing two years ago and Rio in 2016. Which is why the International Olympic Committee keeps going to such places.

The Olympic Games, though, are not fairy dust. They don't magically solve problems. As a catalyst for discrete change, though -- the trick is to think big but recognize that sometimes big change just takes time. That's a hugely sophisticated take on legacy. That's what's on display in Sochi.

In Russia, right now you can't recycle the plastic bottles that are seemingly everywhere. They're working now on that -- because of 2014.

For the first time, 2014 again the spark, they're trying to figure out how to identify -- and recruit -- as many as 30 million people nationwide for the sorts of volunteer projects that are common in the United States. That's one in five people.

"Can you imagine the scale of under-delivered services that could be provided?" asked Dmitry Chernyshenko, the chief of the Sochi 2014 organizing committee.

This is a country where an estimated 13 million people, just under 10 percent of the population, daily confronts physical disabilities.

All that concrete that has been poured at the ice hockey arena? Some of that went into ramps to get up and down.The ramps are the sort that evoke, say, Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. Nothing out of the ordinary here in the United States. In Russia -- that's a shining example.

"Russia is a rather new democracy," Chernyshenko said in an interview. "It's just less than 19 years old." He laughed, then said, "It's like my older daughter," who is 19. "This," the father said, "is the best way to describe what the 'New Russia' means. When you are 19 years old, when you've got great potential but you've [also] got a great history -- it's very natural to become very active and be recognized as a member of world society.

"First of all," he said, "the New Russia should be an equal member of the world society. I know our state leaders are doing a lot for Russia to become that."

And, he said, "We will help them."