How screwed-up is this place, really? And how did Sochi get the Olympics in the first place? And where is it, and why should you care? Let our Gawker Explainer® hash it all out.
First of all, what the hell is a Sochi?
Reputed to be Russia's largest resort city, with a population over 300,000, Sochi is located in the Caucasus region on the Eastern* shore of the Black Sea.
When was it founded?
The Russian empire set up a fort there in 1838.
So it's Russian?
Now, yes. But that was part of a process that involved the Russians fighting off local settlers who'd been in the area for thousands of years. Russia won that war in 1864, and many of the natives fled to Turkey. The town got its name in 1896.
And it does what, exactly?
It offers warm waters, green spaces, and spas to Russians, which is kind of a big deal to them. The first resort in the area, in 1909, was called "Caucasian Riviera." (It referred to the nearby mountains, not the whiteness of its patrons. Though they were probably pretty white.)
Where is this place, again?
It's very close to Russia's border with Georgia, with whom the Russians had a major military conflict in 2008, and it's less than 300 miles from Chechnya.
See the red arrow on this map:
That's kind of sketchy territory, right?
Yep. The Caucasus has historically been a hotbed of ethnic conflict and terrorism, and Sochi's been relatively close to a lot of that. Its surrounding environs were originally settled by the Circassian peoples, who were largely wiped out by the Russian empire in the mid-nineteenth century. In fact, some ethnic Circassians—who claim Sochi as their capital city—claim current Olympic competitors will "be skiing on mass graves" of their people.
Though much of the discord goes back centuries, many of the most relevant nearby conflicts came out of the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Sochi is just miles from the border of Abkhazia, a disputed bump of territory between Russia and Georgia whose status contributed to the countries' 2008 war. (The ethnic Abkhazians tend to side with Russia, one of the few nations that have recognized their state, against their longtime Georgian enemies.)
And then, of course, there's Chechnya and its North Caucasus neighborhood, over which the Russians have fought two bloody wars since 1992, and whose majority-Muslim population still sees Russia as a legitimate target for attacks by insurgents and terrorists. After the Sochi games were announced, major terror groups began salivating at the prospect of a high-profile attack to embarrass Russia and focus international attention on their cause.
Why would Russia even propose Sochi, instead of say, St. Petersburg?
The hot popular myth is that Russian President Vladimir Putin picked Sochi by dictate, because he and his former communist cronies summer there. A more considered opinion, offered by Christian Caryl in the New York Review of Books, is that Putin used Sochi—located as it is "on the edge of a war zone"—to prove to everyone how well he has tamed the wild Northern Caucasus: "He believed that presiding over an Olympic miracle in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, not far from places that had been battlefields a few years before, would cement his triumph over historical enemies."
It's an interesting read that undeniably holds a grain of truth, but it's largely speculative. And in any case, the city's Olympic aspirations predate Putin. Shortly after the Soviet Union fell, Sochi made a bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics; it didn't make the round of finalists. That process took place in the early 1990's, before Putin had consolidated power in the Russian Federation.
Also, in some ways, it makes sense for Russia to suggest a temperate clime for the Olympics, since much of the country gets a little too cold—and is probably just as vulnerable to terrorists, as major attacks in Moscow and elsewhere have shown.
So was the International Olympic Committee concerned about Sochi at all?
Sure. Terror was a big concern initially: In an early analysis of seven possible host cities by IOC experts, Sochi ranked in the middle in terms of security preparedness, ahead only of cities in Bulgaria and Georgia, and neck-and-neck with the former capital of Kazakhstan. Analysts in a later report also expressed concerns that Sochi promoters were overselling their construction plans:
[T]he Sochi bid presents both an opportunity to create a new "custom-built" winter sports area with state-of-the-art facilities, but also the challenge of a major construction project within a defined period.
But voters were mostly comforted by the Russians' guarantees. They promised that there were already ample lodgings for athletes, visitors, and media. They assured the IOC that construction would be quick. And most of all, they guaranteed safety, describing Sochi's locale with terms like "Ethnic Diversity in A Tranquil Environment." There were "no significant political or social movements which might be in opposition to the Sochi 2014 projects," the Russians said, because Sochi was peaceful, and anyway, we've got so many people with guns.
But the IOC picked Sochi anyway?
Barely. When selection time came in Guatemala City in 2007, the Russian contingent reportedly pulled out all the stops, including "a full-size skating rink in the world's largest airplane" and a speech in English by Vladimir Putin—his first ever in public.
That selection process may very well have turned out differently, though, if it had taken place after the Georgia-Russia war of 2008—and the Russian government's more recent freakout about gays and lesbians existing within their borders.
That's it? The vote wasn't, like, decided by corruption?
Well, it might have been. That's always a possibility with Olympic bids. ABC News investigative reporter (and serial error-er) Brian Ross recently reported that the Russian case to IOC voters was helped greatly by "a mysterious Russian businessman, Gafur Rakhimov," whom Ross claims is a major mover in the global heroin trade.
It's true that the Sochi bid contingent thanked Rakhimov "for his 'singled minded work' in getting the votes of some Asian countries, 'without which… it would have been hard for Sochi to count on the victory'":
A Rakhimov spokesman confirmed the businessman's role in lobbying for Sochi with IOC voters, saying "He has great influence." But whether that translates to dirty dealings is unclear. Since the Soviet fall, Russia has long cultivated alliances with its Asian neighbors, especially since America's bungling in their backyard with the Afghanistan war. Moreover, a choice between South Korea and Russia might have looked easier for voters from states like China, who have to consider not pissing off North Korea too much or too often.
One more strike against Brian Ross' theory: It relies heavily on "expert" interviews with Craig Murray, the former U.K. ambassador to Uzbekistan—who, while a dedicated crusader for human rights, has been known to exaggerate and bend the truth.
Is this Winter Olympics really the pooch-screw everyone's making it out to be?
This may or may not be one of Sochi's infamous loos.
What about the gays and lesbians thing?
This is really important: Russia is a terrible, terrible place for civil liberties in general, and for the rights of LGBT community members in particular. It has been a major issue going into these Olympics, with athletes and journalists who are LGBT or LGBT-friendly fearing persecution and deportation, depending on how heavily Russia chooses to apply its own retrograde, discriminatory laws.
Anything else I should know about the 2014 Winter Olympics?
Yes: Stop making a big fricking deal about the Jamaican bobsled team. They debuted in Calgary in 1988. They got a Disney movie. People who are still fawning over the Jamaican bobsled team are like people who go to Philadelphia and are moved to write to all their friends about cheesesteaks.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Getty]