Four years ago the biggest issue for the Vancouver Winter Olympics was packing the slopes with trucked-in snow. For Sochi’s Winter Olympics, it’s packing the slopes with security.
Sochi is a sprawling resort city on the Black Sea near the Caucasus Mountains with a population of about 400,000. It is one of the rare places in Russia with a subtropical climate and the average February temperature is a balmy 8.3C, something like we had in January. It is the warmest city to host a Winter Olympics and it will be the first Games to be held in the Russian Federation since the break-up of the USSR in 1991.
The city has been transformed with new indoor sports venues and the Sochi Olympic Park, all of them clustered around the central Medals Plaza. There are new hotels, restaurants, and a broadcasting centre. All the skiing and sliding sports will be clustered in the nearby mountains in Krasnaya Polyana.
If you think our budget in 2010 was high at $8 billion, Sochi started out at $12 billion seven years ago and topped $51 billion last year becoming the most expensive Olympics in history. This is one “first” no nation hosting future Games wants to match or better.
As the Olympics get underway today, radical militants who want to see southern Russia an Islamic state continue to threaten to derail the Games. The search continues for a dozen or more “black widows” whose loved ones have died in the Islamic fight against President Putin’s Russia and are bent on revenge.
Almost all of them are part of Vilayat Dagestan, the group that has promised a “present” for the visiting tourists to Sochi. In the lead-up to the Olympics, three suicide bombings in Volgograd have registered high on the political Richter scale causing Russia to put the southern resort city on high alert.
Frequent frisking, bomb detector dogs, endless electronic surveillance, 1,400 video cameras in downtown Sochi, 40,000 law enforcement officers from across Russia, and “situation centres” have Sochi in almost a lock-down.
Over the past week, athletes from 204 countries have poured into Sochi armed with I.D. and instructions to be vigilant and focused. The U.S. has parked its gunboats in the Black Sea and has warned some 15,000 Americans travelling to Sochi to take extra precautions. As the opening ceremonies get underway today, they might feel they are watching from a warzone.
But in spite of all that, Canada’s team is in Sochi with the singular goal for excellence in the quest to top our Vancouver 2010 finish. Canada has sent 221 athletes, the best-prepared team yet to represent us at a winter games. The team is represented by athletes from nine provinces and two territories with Ontario sending 64, Alberta 56, Quebec 43 and B.C. 20 athletes. Plus we’re sending the most female athletes ever at 100 individuals with Hayley Wickenheiser as our flag-bearer. This is her sixth Olympics making her a pretty experienced veteran.
The success of the Vancouver Olympic Games is without doubt our hallmark. We finished first in the gold medal haul and third overall with 26 medals (14 gold, seven silver, and five bronze) behind the U.S. and Germany. That gold standard set a benchmark for our athletes to match or better at the Sochi event.
Our athletes will compete in 93 out of the record 98 medal competitions in 15 winter sport disciplines. By contrast, there were 86 medal events in Vancouver. Some of the new events include women’s ski jumping, biathlon mixed relay, mixed team luge, half-pipe skiing, ski and snowboard slopestyle, and snowboard parallel slalom.
The next two weeks in Sochi promise to be thrilling. Go Canada!