The Winter Olympics are being held for the first time in Russia, a country known as much for its vast snow-buried landscapes as for literature, ballet and the Cold War decades of communism.
But the site of the Feb. 7-23 Games, which commence in 100 days, is the Black Sea resort of Sochi, a city of beaches and palm trees in the heart of the Russian Riviera.
Sochi, where Joseph Stalin’s favorite summer dacha is now a museum, is being transformed into a winter sports capital, as are the nearby slopes of Krasnaya Polyana in the Caucasus Mountains, where President Vladimir Putin likes to ski.
The makeover is part of Putin’s grand plan to sow patriotic pride in the new, capitalist Russia by returning the country to Olympic supremacy. But it’s going to cost more than any other Olympic Games — $50 billion, which is $10 billion more than China spent on its extravagant 2008 Summer Games and $44 billion more than Canada spent on the 2010 Winter Games.
Russia hopes the investment — as well as the home-field advantage — will be enough to lift its medal count far higher than the dismal total of 15 four years ago, which ranked fifth, behind even Austria and Norway.
The United States’ Olympic team, which competes on the soil of its old Soviet-era rival for the first time, plans to build on its world-leading haul of 37 medals from 2010. Skier Lindsey Vonn is back after reconstructive knee surgery, snowboarder Shaun White will go for a third consecutive gold in the halfpipe, figure skaters Meryl Davis and Charlie White are favored to win ice dancing for the first time in U.S. history, and X Games stars are stoked to capitalize on a batch of podium opportunities in new circus events added to the program.
“I fall, I get back up,” Vonn said on the Today show Tuesday during a U.S. Olympic Committee countdown-to-Sochi event in New York’s Times Square. “It’s who I am. Obviously, this was the biggest setback I’ve ever had, but I’m skiing really well. My knee feels great. I can’t tell which one is injured.”
South Florida’s Olympic hopefuls would feel right at home in Sochi. Short-track speedskater Eddy Alvarez, following the example of four-time, long-track Olympian Jennifer Rodriguez, has won two World Cup medals this season. Lauryn Williams, Olympic silver medalist in the 100-meter dash, is pushing for a spot on the bobsled team. Ex-driver Brian Shimer is coach of the men’s bobsled team that seeks more gold after breaking a 46-year winless streak in 2010.
As for hockey, the U.S. men skate for their first gold since the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 and four years after losing in overtime to Canada on Sidney Crosby’s shot heard across the continent. The U.S. women won the inaugural gold in 1998, but Canada, which won the gold medal tally in Vancouver/Whistler, has won every Olympic tournament since.
Curling, biathlon, ski jumping, luge and skeleton are among other sports adding to the action at an Olympics that could be full of political tension and lacking snow.
Athletes have voiced opposition to a Russian law that bans the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.” Foreigners who break the widely condemned law face $3,000 fines and 14-day jail sentences.
“It’s absolutely embarrassing that there are countries and people who are that intolerant, that ignorant,” said skier Bode Miller, bidding for a fifth Olympic berth.