SOCHI, Russia -- One of the immediate takeaways as the Sochi Olympic Games hit their midway point is that the venues here in the Coastal Cluster are just gorgeous. From the outside, they gleam and sparkle, even from space, and on the inside, they are clean and efficient and comfortable and even weirdly healthy. Sochi might not have been 100 percent ready when the world initially arrived, but the arenas certainly were.
The coastal arenas have that gloss and sheen to them that all brand new sporting venues have, that sorta eerie, calm combination of aesthetics and corporate precision. Stadiums and arenas never really feel legitimate until they've been lived in a while, until Grandma takes the protective cover off the new couch and the kids can scuff the place up a little. A sports venue is just a building until fans get a hold of it.
That's the strangest thing about these Sochi arenas, though. They're new and pretty and ready to be played in and brought to life... and in eight days, most of them are going to cease to exist. They will end up barely used at all. Most of them hadn't even hosted an event before this week. The Adler Arena Skating Center hosted speed skating competitions in December 2012 and March 2013, and the Iceberg Skating Place had the Grand Prix in December 2012. On the coast, that's it: Shayba Arena, the Bolshoy Ice Dome and the Fisht Olympic Stadium sat vacant until this week. They are here only for this fortnight. The Olympics end a week from Sunday, and these buildings will be empty again. So then what?
This is a larger issue for Sochi, the area, from the city to the coast to the mountains; no one's quite sure what's going to come of this place once everybody ships out of here in a week. I rode a gondola earlier this week with an employee of Burton snowboards, who has been in Sochi for a month and is staying until April to help "with the transition." I asked him what the plans for the mountain resorts were, post-Olympics. "There are no plans," he grimaced. "These people have no idea. They're not realistic about a lot of things."
At least the mountain isn't going anywhere. The venues at the coastal cluster were built up in an area that previously had nothing but coastland. There is an ugly precedent for Olympic venues that don't have an infrastructure surrounding them, post-Games. Greece is desperately trying to sell off all it can from its abandoned venue graveyard in Athens, an area that BusinessWeek said now features mostly "stray dogs wander[ing] among the decaying stadiums and buildings as a skeleton crew of security guards keeps watch." And that was only 10 years ago. Even worse off is Sarajevo, host of the 1984 Winter Olympics, a city that would be the center of a war zone a decade later. Almost everything is destroyed and overrun, as witnessed in this depressing photo gallery. That's obviously the nightmare scenario.
Also: It's Russia, and it would be naïve to think that the corruption and kickbacks and rampant cost overruns that came with building up this whole city won't be an issue when they're tearing it down too. So what do they have planned? The massive Main Media Center, if they can attract shoppers, is going to be transformed into a shopping mall, which it kinda feels like already. But these are all just ideas; Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev just last week admitted that not enough thought had been put into a post-Olympics Sochi and encouraged "some of Russia's wealthiest men" to come with some ideas. Russia's Sports Ministry has some vague plans for the buildings, though. A look at each, with a link to The Anti-Corruption Foundations descriptions of much it cost, in terms of money and human capital, to build them:
- Adler Arena Skating Center (speed skating). This one cost $28,000 a seat to build, two-and-a-half times more expensive than comparative Olympic venues from the past. Its 8,000 seats are expected to be stripped out within weeks of the end of the Games; the notion now is that it will be an "exhibition hall," though no one seems to know what it will be exhibiting. Worst case, like some other venues, it can be taken apart and moved to another town. The final sporting event ever held in this $223.6 million building will be next Saturday's men's and women's team pursuit. It hosted 12 days of competition in total.
- Bolshoy Ice Dome (hockey). At 12,000 capacity, this is the biggest venue to actually host competitions this week. (Its cost per seat: $25,000.) This has the most potential of any venue for future use, if they can get people to come to Sochi. It's perfectly located right on the water, and its video-board roof has been one of the more delightful sites of these games. The Sports Ministry wants to keep it as a sports and entertainment venue, though it's worth nothing that its landmass far exceeds what you would expect for a building that only holds 12,000 people. If Sochi can become a destination, though, this is the arena where it will have its sports and concerts.
- Fisht Olympic Stadium (opening and closing ceremonies). The biggest building in Sochi, it holds 45,000 people even though it has yet to host a single sporting event. (And actually won't hold any events during these games.) This was the most exorbitantly priced stadium, at $13,000 a seat, but there still isn't a single competition scheduled yet for here.
The Russian national soccer team will train here, and it will be one of 11 stadiums that will host games during the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It is possible that the first actual sporting event at Fisht won't take place until then; even though the Sports Ministry says the Russian national team will play a friendly there for training, none have yet been scheduled. Construction is reported to have cost as much as $700 million.
- Iceberg Skating Palace (figure skating and short-track speed skating). The most architecturally ambitious of the coastal venues, it nonetheless is another structure that can be picked up and moved if need be. (It still cost twice as much as the ice skating facility in Turin.) The plan for this all along has been to make this into a cycling velodrome -- the need for which in Sochi is apparently self-evident? -- but last week, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak raised the possibility that it could remain a skating venue. If it doesn't remain a sports arena, the final sporting event ever held in this $272.2 million building will be next Friday's short-track speedskating 5000-meter relay. It will have hosted 15 days of competition in total.
- Ice Cube Curling Center (curling). The ugliest building on the coast -- it looks like no one really bothered to design it beyond "make it a big cube" -- it only holds 3,000 people, the smallest of all the arenas. This was built to be moved anywhere it would need to go after the games, but in her breathtaking New Republic cover story about Putin's Russia, journalist Julia Ioffe featured this quote from a longtime investigator of corruption in the country:
"After the Olympics, they're going to turn it into the Palace of Beach Sports. Under a roof." He made one of his signature faces, an incredulous smirk used to contemplate only the most overwhelming stupidity.The last sporting event ever held in the $29.2 million Ice Cube Curling Center will be Friday's men's Gold Medal match. It will have hosted 12 days of competition in total.
"Beach sports," he repeated. "Under a roof."
- Shayba Arena (hockey). It's just hockey here too, but it only has 7,000 seats. (It's where the U.S. men's team played Thursday.) This is another stadium that can be moved, and is expected to be. But what will they do with it? Here's an Associated Press report on what's going to happen to Shayba (which is the Russian word for "puck"):
Shayba was built by UGMK, a major metals company which pledged that the arena would be moved to a UGMK facility in the Urals to benefit the company's workers. But the company's owner changed his mind last year. During an inspection tour last February, Putin asked the company's chairman whether he was willing to give the arena to the state after the games. Andrei Bokarev responded with gusto to the suggestion, saying: "we're ready!"The last sporting event ever held in the $104 million Shayba Arena will be Wednesday's men's hockey quarterfinal. It will have hosted 12 days of competition in total.
In a little more than a week, the world is going to pack up and go home, and the vast majority never come here again. What happens next to the place we've descended on for this fortnight is an open question that no one wants to ask until the Games are over. Which is probably too late.