ROSA KHUTOR - 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.”
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.