Mike Rowbottom: Sochi 2014's venues shaping up – come sunshine, come rain
Wednesday, 07 November 2012
This week's World Press Briefing, based in a gated village of a hotel sumptuously located within a steep-sided, fir and birch-lined valley deep in the Krasnaya Polyana mountains – and not far from a much larger gated enclave belonging to the Russian President Vladimir Putin – offered assembled media a whistle-stop tour of the venues which are being built from scratch both on the coast and inland.
The weather varied over the two days of sightseeing. The enterprise never wavered. It is relentless. It is daunting. But most of all, it is ongoing.
As our bus traversed the 48 kilometres route to the coastal city of Sochi – as far south as Nice, and traditionally Russia's most popular summer resort – we travelled in bright sunshine past solid lines of lorries, diggers, cement mixers and mini-buses full of construction workers heading up towards the mountain ranges behind us, their wheels throwing up dust into mountain air that has been pristine for countless years. The dust was flying too when we reached our destination just a few hundred metres away from the rolling, olive green water of the Black Sea. More lines of lorries. More mini-buses. More activity.
On day two, as we made the shorter journey up to the Alpine venues, clouds had covered the mountaintops, drifting down almost to ground level at our hotel, and the rain sheeted down. And the building operation continued in the mountains without a beat with workers, clad in yellow waterproofs, proceeding in the downpour.
In his opening address to the briefing, the Mayor of Sochi, Anatoly Pakhomov, had spoken proudly of how Sochi could count on 300 sunny days a year. Sochi yes – but Krasnaya Polyana no. "The local guys say it will probably be like this until the snow comes," said our guide, Olga. So that's winter sorted for 20,000- or-so workers – pioneering in the rain, with rest breaks. They will certainly be earning their roubles.
Olga's introductory remark as we stood outside what will be the Main Press Centre – the first of our venues to be visited on the coastal site – was unfortunately timed. "As you can see, it is very nice," she said, as a sudden gust of warm wind turned the air into a dustbowl, which sent the assembled media reeling backwards with screwed-up faces. Upon reflection, it did look pretty nice – with an interesting, wavy roof. Once the media have come and gone, the whole place will become what we were reliably informed would be the biggest shopping mall and entertainment centre in the region.
The Iceberg Skating Palace, which will host figure skating and short track speed skating, is not far from completion, and will have its test event next month when the International Skating Union (ISU) stage a World Cup event there. It is an imaginative design, all icy blues and white, lines flowing like water.
The interior is still pretty basic, however, and as we trudged in for the statutory views of the empty room which will become the mixed zone, and the empty room which will become the media working room, and the empty room...you get the picture...we encountered a gloriously jolly figure standing like a proud daughter of the Revolution with a long-handled painting roller set temporarily at her side. The task of turning the corridors white was halted as our international cohort passed through. Irina smiled on radiantly, then shook her head with a mixture of pleasure and disbelief as she became the focus of numerous camera phones.
Other subjects chosen were less positive. One visitor knelt carefully on the floor to get a close-up view of a small pile of dusty rubble in a corridor. Horror. Will the Games be ready on Time?
The answer is yes, because behind all this is the power, money and steely support of the President who holidays in the region and who is set on ensuring that Sochi becomes a means of demonstrating all that the new modern Russia wants to show of itself to the wider world.
Inside the Adler Arena, where the speed skating will be held, preparations were underway to lay down the first layer of ice on which the Russian Championships will take place next month, followed in March by an ISU World Cup event that is expected to draw all the main Olympic contenders.
Facilities for the ice hockey are – like every other venue at the Sochi 2014 Games – purpose-built, and expansive. The biggest games will be played in the Bolshoy Dome, whose vast white roof was populated on our visit by the tiny figures of workers resembling roped mountaineers edging up an ice sheet.
Inside, the vast, dense cube created by Panasonic, across which images and information will stream, awaited its hoisting high over a surface that awaited its icy coating.
Inside the neighbouring Shayba Arena there was also concrete where ice will be, but both goals were in situ and blue seating was completed all around the rink. The second-string ice hockey arena is no less imposing than the Bolshoy. And there are two additional rinks built separately for training and warm-up.
The main Olympic stadium – named the Fisht Stadium after Mount Fisht, which rises to 9,409 feet further along the Caucasus range – is still a way from completion, but is already taking shape as the centrepiece that will stage the Opening and Closing Ceremonies.
As we set off on our return journey into the mountains, another solid line of lorries carrying sand and hard core waited impatiently for us to move out of the way.
Up in the mountains on our second day trip, the coach made its way through the driving rain along a narrow, winding road with steep falls alongside. "Our driver will be very careful, so don't worry," said Olga. At which point everyone began to worry just a little.
First stop was the RusSki Gorki Jumping Centre, where, for the first time at a Winter Games, the ski jump and Nordic combined events will finish in the same place. (Although not, one trusts, at the same time.)
Sochi 2014 will feature 12 new Olympic disciplines, 11 of which will be Alpine events, and one of which will be the women's ski jump. They will take off from the smaller of the two jumps, the K95, which runs parallel to the K125 jump the men will slide down.
Both runs were discernible in the gloom and rain as we entered the venue building for our briefing. Quarter of an hour later they were invisible under cloud.
The Sanki Sliding Centre, where the luge, bobsleigh and skeleton events will take place, felt most like a Winter Games venue as it was fully active with luge sliders taking part in an international training week. The track, which has the unique safety feature of three upward stretches, has been gaining good reports from those who have had the chance of testing it this week.
One of the areas of most intensive excitement at any Winter Games is the finish area of the Alpine downhill and slalom skiing. As each competitor hurtles and bumps down the final vertiginous white wall and then curves to a snow-ploughing halt in front of the packed crowd, everyone has half an eye on the clock, and then the scoreboard, to discover the exact value of the latest sally down the slopes.
It was odd indeed, after we had moved on to the Rosa Khutor Alpine Centre, to be standing at the confluence of the men's and women's downhill runs, and also of the slalom course – these will be the first Winter Games where all finish in the same spot – and to consider the frenzy which, in 15 months' time, will inhabit what is now a nondescript stretch of mud and building materials.
Sochi 2014 has operated, in epic fashion, on the notion of "if we build it, they will come" (and yes, I do know that wasn't the exact line used in the film Field of Dreams, from which the saying stems.) There is similar certainty about the arrival of the one element without which any Winter Games, no matter how hi-tech, cannot take place – snow.
While some of the highest peaks in the Krasnaya Polyana range are dusted with snow now above the dense tree lines, the snow will arrive in earnest, locals insist, by February, the time of the Games. Which is good to know.
By then, Irina's corridors will be a thing of beauty. And no doubt the small pile of rubble will have been cleared away.
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames.