— Russia chose one of its southernmost cities — subtropical Sochi — as its nominee for next year's Winter Olympics. Wowed by images of deep snow in the Caucasus Mountains, the International Olympic Committee voted yes — ahead of Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Six years after winning the bid for hockey and figure skating events, everything is, as Russians say, “pod kontrolem,” or "under control." Enclosed rinks and ice-making technology guarantee indoor ice on Russia's Black Sea Coast, a balmy land where palms trees grow.
Less than an hour's drive away in the Caucasus, where temperatures are far colder than in Sochi, this winter's snowfall was erratic. On Feb. 7, exactly one year before the Olympics are scheduled to open, rain fell, temperatures rose to 19 degrees Celsius, and skiing and snowboarding events were cancelled.
The base of the Rosa Khutor resort, the downhill ski venue, was not snow white, but dirt brown.
“It’s too warm — it’s 15 degrees,” said Ksenia, a competitive Russian skier, as light rain started falling on the resort. “A couple of days ago, it was 23 degrees over there. Two days ago, like yesterday and today, it was raining, and snow was disappearing.”
Stanislav Lopane, a skiing coach from St. Petersburg in northern Russia, had enjoyed the snow conditions at the very top of the mountain, but still he was worried.
“This is the subtropics. It’s a risk to have the Olympics here — a definite risk,” he said while cradling his skis, wet from rain. “I think the government is prepared for it. I don’t know how they will manage it. Perhaps they could transport snow with helicopters if there’s not enough.”
Krasnaya Polana, or ‘beautiful meadow’, is the gateway to the Caucasus Mountain ski and snowboard venues for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. (V. Undritz for VOA)
This highway suspension bridge is part of an $8 billion road and link designed to transport Olympics attendees between the skating venues on the Black Sea coast and the snow venues in the Caucasus Mountains. (V. Undritz for VOA)
Once tranquil mountain villages are being transformed by the massive construction of Olympic housing. High rises are to become hotels and condominiums for vacationers after the games. (V. Undritz for VOA)
Russians hope that their world-class ski resorts will become part of the legacy of the Olympics. (V. Undritz for VOA)
At the base of the brand new Rosa Khutor ski area, a faux Alpine village has been built in the last 1,000 days, complete with a German-style “Rathaus” or town hall. (V. Undritz for VOA)
Visitors study the ski trail map of Rosa Khutor, which suffered from erratic snow cover and rain in February and March of this year. (V. Undritz for VOA)
A brand new European-made gondola carries skiers to upper slopes. (V. Undritz for VOA)
Poor weather – high winds and lack of snow – forced organizers to cancel a cross country event. (V. Undritz for VOA)
Maslenitsa doll awaits her fate with ski at the Rosa Khutor resort. (V. Undritz for VOA)
In a pre-Lenten festival, Russians dance around the Maslenitsa doll. (V. Undritz for VOA)
The Maslenitsa figure burns as Russians celebrate the end of winter. (V. Undritz for VOA)
The Rosa Khutor base village at night, where developers have sought to create the night life found in European and American mountain resorts. (V. Undritz for VOA)
The Olympic ski jump rises from the mountain mists above Sochi. The jump’s price tag: $265 million. (V. Undritz for VOA)
Diggers carve a mountain valley for a road and rail link from the Black Sea Coast. It is unclear if restoration of the landscape will be completed in time for the Feb. 2014 Olympics. (V. Undritz for VOA)
The concrete pylons of a railroad bridge through the once clear waters of the Mzimta River. Once a magnet for rafters and spawning salmon, the river is now brown and routed through many concrete channels. (V. Undritz for VOA)
To guarantee snow, Sochi organizers have installed 444 snowmaking guns like the ones used in Whistler, Canada, site of the ski and snowboarding events at the 2010 Winter Games.
Also, high up in the mountains workers have been bulldozing snow into huge piles for storage if needed next winter. The snow is being covered by an isothermal fabric that keeps heat off by reflecting the sun's rays. When the job is completed in mid-April, there should be enough to fill 200 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov told reporters that the Olympic show will go on — with snow guaranteed.
"We will make conclusions based on our experience of holding test competitions, including conclusions about the weather, if the temperature will be plus 10,” he said. “All that will be taken into account, and obviously the Olympic Games will be held according to a proper standard."
Up in the mountains, rained-out skiers danced and sang in early March for Maslenitsa, Russia’s pre-Lenten festival.
But it could well have been a pagan prayer for snow.