The Potemkin Games: Is Sochi’s Legacy Corruption or Stardom?

Elephant as a  metaphor for an obvious problem: Can We Talk About The Elephant In The Room?

Can We Talk About The Elephant In The Room?

“Define ‘huge problem’…?”

Without a doubt, the best quote of the week.  (File under the heading of, “If you have to ask…”)

This one came from Dmitri Grigoriev, General Manager of the Sochi Olympic Speed Skate Center.

Mr. Grigoriev was responding to a VICE News interviewer concerned with the cost of Sochi Olympic Games where he was asked, “Is it true there’s a huge problem with corruption?”

“Define ‘huge problem‘…” Grigoriev replied coyly.

You gotta love these guys. They spend $51 billion dollars, can’t tell you exactly what it was for or how much things cost, and then want you to believe they can’t define “huge problem”?


(You might also like this post: Would You Recognize Corruption If You Perceived It?)

Now, before the haters get started again, let me just say this post is not about taking the shine off the Sochi apple.

Sochi Hotel Problems: They Say Every Joke Has A Grain Of Truth... ?

They Say Every Joke Has A Grain Of Truth… ?

I’ve read the texts  that have declared the journalists as lazy and unprofessional for reporting a story- one that I  believe should legitimately be told- and frankly, I’m a little puzzled.

We have a saying here, “If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.”

Eight myths about Russia – Rakesh Krishnan Simha
“The international media does a poor job at reporting on Russia. Lazy, shoddy journalism and traditional prejudices still stuck in the cobwebs of the mind are responsible for the myths that abound.

Tweeters can feign indignance about reporters telling their stories, but, hey, if the stories are valid, either fix it or let it go.

But, today we aren’t focusing shoddy workmanship or poor project management. President Putin will no doubt deal much more effectively with those who fall short than would the court of public opinion. Woe be unto those who bring shame on Putin’s Games…

This post is also not about “America” vs “Russia”… though we got a taste of that Saturday and it looks like we’ll have plenty more as the Hockey semi- and final-rounds heat up. (I’m all for that, by the way!)

No, what has me disturbed today is a thorny problem that is not even unique to Sochi. The Games have highlighted the issue, for sure. And while it’s on a much larger stage this year in the former Soviet Union, the elephant in the room, so to speak, is prevalent across the developing world.

I’m talking about the issue of out of control spending in the name of marquee events. The idea that if we could just host a big event, it would lift us from poverty.

More specifically, sports/event spending in the name of legacy economic development. With price tags spiraling ever upward, how can Olympic Games like these be justified going forward? In America, it’s a Super Bowl bid.

Why do mega-events so often  cause more disruption than improvement in the lives of people they are meant to help? Isn’t it the other way around- that we first improve people’s lives, for real  instead of show, and then host an event?

Baku, Azerbaijan went through a similar modernization plan, with many of the same critical comments- with stories of residents displaced without compensation, environmental degradation issues and civil rights violations- in the run up to its hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012.

[NOTE: Yes, I know there are two sides to every question, of course, and want to be mindful not to take reports as fact until verified, but… after spending 10 years living in Baku, I’m familiar with the process firsthand.]

In my post “Are We Ready For Spring?” I wrote about the loss of culture when Baku moved rapidly to build everything new from scratch, bulldozing buildings and disabusing people of the notion that they could build their lives in the same decades old neighborhoods where their grandparents had also lived, some since Stalin’s time.

Old Stones or Just Ruble? Picture of stone archway Baku as illustration of renovation in old countries and cultures

Old Stones or Just Rubble?

When I arrived in the mid 90s, tanks had been in the streets, rubble was still in the Old City, excavation of historic sites was underway. The country was trying to right the ship after the break-up of the former Soviet Union and the subsequent government coups.

Water didn’t work regularly, electricity was hit or miss. People in Baku city were generally having to work around rolling schedules of power, water and gas outages just to get through the day. (Check out “Good Steam, She said as I almost blew up the boiler” for some of the trials in my first days in Baku!)

Slowly there were improvements and new development, some actual planning was underway. Gradually things began normalizing in the city. Outlying areas were later in the scheme but power projects and NGO development plans made improvements slowly. Decisions weren’t made in a political vacuum, but neither did they appear to be blatantly hijacked as pay for votes either.

Now You See It, Now You Don't: Hiding the real conditions in Baku, Azerbaijan and other developing nations

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

Then came the athletic events. Azerbaijan was (is) crazy for soccer! Next came the win at the Eurovision Song Contest, or maybe it was the other way around.

Mega-event urgency fever took hold and citizens complained anew that they were being left behind in order to make a big show on the world stage. Housing blocks were torn down to make way for the new and the shiny.

This is the phase of country building called “Because I Can…” (If you look under Democracy in a dictionary, you should never see this.)

Good advice forgotten, money burns a hole in oligarch pockets.

The siren call of tourism, cheap easy money. “If we build it they will come.”

Baku Then And Now: City Streets showing lavish spending that improves only special interests

Baku Then And Now

These photos show Baku’s flashy new Flame Towers as viewed (at right) from the beautifully re-done boulevard at night. Below right is what everyone else sees in the light of day.

Just like in Baku, Sochi now has more or less similar lavish shops that locals can’t afford; hotels that locals don’t stay in (well, certain ones do, but that’s another post); restaurants encouraging a Euro-splash attitude (“Look at me, I can spend $500 for a simple meal…”)

Sochi has always had a reputation of a playground, but one wonders if this has helped recruit the right tourists.

Now that it’s here, the real question is, where does the spare $51 billion dollars come from for Russia’s Sochi Olympics tab?

Is there any money left in the budget to fix the illegal dumping grounds and toxic construction waste or rebuild the water system?

This video clip below shows Sochi with some realistic, though not entirely flattering conditions. I think on the whole this is a balanced report though, showing both the positive and interviewing those impacted negatively.

Above all, it’s an interesting behind the scenes tour, and it raises questions that we need to hear and think about.  (The clip is a bit long for this post, but watch what you can- it’s interesting.)



The question that keeps running around in my head is this: What’s it all for? Where do we go from here?

No… actually I have about 50 more questions just like that in my head.

In fact, it feels just like being on a cross-country plane flight where they start the movie late, or you make up too much time, and just before the movie finale, the pilot says we have to turn it off… I want to know how this thing ends!  Am I the only one who wonders:

  • What will the legacy be for Sochi 2014? An abandoned village like in Beijing, or Athens? Repurposed venues like in Los Angeles?
  • Will the people of Sochi enjoy the surroundings enough to overcome residual disappointment that their farms and houses have been taken?
  • What was worth $51 billion? Economic Development? New community sports programs? New skills and jobs?

The previous way of life is in jeopardy based on the number of family farms and food-producing activities that have been uprooted, the citation for having an illegal landfill sitting on top of water sources, and so on. If the hotels aren’t full, how long will hospitality jobs last?

Obviously these problems are too big for any one person, but it is encouraging that some of the reports coming out after the data from the London 2012 Games has been analyzed are now doing some truth-telling, calling the Emperor truly naked after all. We (and the IOC most certainly) should really think again about the promises of each bid.

Following the London 2012 Olympic Games, Katharine Helen Hughes of London noted in her thesis work:

“It was an imaginative idea in that it was certainly born from imagination; it was known that no previous Olympic Games had succeeded in leaving a legacy of increased mass sport participation. This knowledge, which was supported by empirically based evidence, made the legacy realistically difficult to deliver. 

Unlike the planning to stage the event, planning for legacy has lacked the necessary resources.

…the ambition of a legacy of increased mass sport participation as a legacy of the London 2012 Games lacked an appreciation of reality. There was not a precedent of a similar legacy of an Olympic Games. There was not any guidance on how to get more people doing more sport as a legacy of the Games.”

As these Games conclude this next week, it will be interesting to watch what President Putin has in mind to give his Sochi Olympics a lasting and honest legacy, and not let them die as just some Potemkin Games.




A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the Leeds 
Metropolitan University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

One thought on “The Potemkin Games: Is Sochi’s Legacy Corruption or Stardom?

  1. Pingback: What Would YOU Do With $50 Billion? | Life Lessons

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