Looking back at Sochi, lessons for Brazil's turn on stage

By Evan Ward

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Feb. 23 2014 5:32 p.m. MST

Fans make their way to Fisht Stadium for the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014.

Darron Cummings, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

As the icy, artificial snow evaporates from ski slopes high above Sochi, and podium- worthy performances by Utah athletes remain etched in our minds, we pause for a moment before turning our attention to this year's next sports mega-event: the FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

The Sochi Games garnered attention for many reasons, including the $50 billion price tag for pageantry, infrastructure and security. Many have rightly questioned whether the expenses were justified. However, the American public may not be in the best position to pass judgment. Based on pre-Olympic interviews, Russian President Vladimir Putin's personal imprint on the games was arguably directed east toward Asia's other rising powers, including China and India, rather than solely toward settling Cold War grudges.

To put it another way, the planners of the Sochi Games were as inspired by visions of Russia pursuing the economic miracles of China, as symbolized by the Beijing Olympic Games of 2008, as they were about avenging the Miracle on Ice, when the United States defeated the Russian hockey team at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980. It would be the last major Olympic contest between the superpowers for some time, as America boycotted the Moscow Summer Games of 1980, and as the Russians boycotted the Los Angeles Summer Games in 1984.

It is certain that Russia will never recoup the money invested in the games. However, Putin's motivations were not wholly irrational. Sochi will draw many domestic and Asian tourists to the pebbly beaches of the Black Sea that might have vacationed on the Turkish Riviera. Sochi may be new to us, but in 1967, New York Times reporter Raymond H. Anderson hailed a "subtropical resort" where "[several] large, modern hotels of glass and concrete have already risen above the city's lush greenery of palms, Himalayan spruce and cypress on slopes overlooking the Black Sea."

Back in the Western Hemisphere, Brazil now prepares for the global spotlight during the World Cup — promptly followed by its role as host of the 2016 Summer Games. The economic and social costs for building stadiums there will be as high, comparatively, as structures in Sochi. Troubling riots during the 2013 Confederations Cup, a prestigious soccer tournament considered a rehearsal for this year's event, illustrated public displeasure at expenditures not only being measured in dollars, but also in embarrassing symbols that will remain on Brazilian urban landscapes after the World Cup. For example, the subway system in Salvador da Bahia is not due to be operational until two months after the World Cup ends.

On the other hand, modernizing legendary facilities like Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, a massive cathedral of soccer built for the 1950 World Cup — where 199,854 spectators witnessed the finale between Brazil and Uruguay — illustrates a less ostentatious approach to hosting sports. The renovated facilities for the World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games may better showcase sport over spectacle and internationalism over infrastructure. In other words, the stadiums, tourist facilities and local economic development will not overshadow the way in which the contest of athletes from around the world can inspire greatness.

Still, Brazilian host cities do hope to get better airports and hotels for their troubles. By the opening of the 2014 Winter Games, the greater Sochi metropolitan area boasted approximately 40,000 hotel rooms. Comparatively, by the opening of the 2016 Summer Games, the 13 million person metropolis of Rio de Janeiro (approximately 26 times larger than greater Sochi), is expected to have the same number of international quality hotel rooms.

More like Salt Lake at the time of the 2002 Olympics Games, which tallied approximately 22,000 hotel rooms in Salt Lake and Summit counties at the time, the Brazilian improvements will be well-integrated into an existing urban fabric. In terms of global reach, Rio's international airport welcomes flights from five continents, including direct flights from at least seven U.S. cities. Sochi has no direct flights from the United States, and most likely never will.

Yet what can Brazil learn from the Sochi and Beijing Olympic Games, and other competitions being hosted in the developing world? Beyond the obvious need for security, which serves as the foundation for well-run mega-events anywhere in the world, there are a few lessons that the hosts of the 2014 World Cup should learn from their predecessors.

First, empty seats in prime time have less to do with cost of tickets and more to do with choked streets leading to the venues. Despite the fact that the Russian government spent $8 billion to $9 billion on the 30-mile railway between Sochi and skiing venues at Krasnaya Polyana, the trains did, for the most part, transport competitors and fans to the winter sports park efficiently. Brazilian city officials will have to find creative solutions to the gridlock that chronically brings traffic to a halt there. Rio officials might also do well to look to Bogota, Colombia. Faced with the exorbitant costs and logistic headaches of building a subway system, Colombian officials instead appropriated selected street lanes for the exclusive use by buses. This critically acclaimed solution to traffic jams alleviated traffic in Colombia’s capital and helped to clear the air.

Second, Brazilian officials should learn from the Sochi Games that preserving the physical integrity of fields of play is as important as building gleaming stadiums and five-star hotels. Icy ski slopes and slushy halfpipes became too much of an active participant in Sochi’s tropical winter competitions — and compromised athletic performances.

Every mega-event is unique. Brazil will face stiff challenges accommodating all of the spectators in comfortable hotels during the 2½ years. In 1968, when Mexico City hosted the first Olympic Games in a developing country, the organizing committee encouraged local residents to host visiting spectators, knowing that not enough hotel rooms had been built to accommodate demand. Nearly 50 years later, Brazilian authorities might encourage broader use of online services by the public, such as AirBnB.com, which has turned many spare bedrooms into viable lodging.

Despite these challenges, global gatherings generate constructive possibilities. I base this optimism on an experience I had in Beijing two months after the completion of the Olympic Games. One Saturday afternoon I rode the subway from downtown Beijing to the Olympic complex. Having heard of the economic downturn that has often tarnished the reputation of host cities after mega-events, I was pleasantly surprised to see the same types of small gatherings and conversation going on in the public spaces between the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube that I encountered during an early morning visit to the Temple of Heaven across town. Grandfathers stood, conversing with children and grandchildren, in the shadow of the latest "wonders" of the Olympic universe. Hopefully the legacy of the Sochi Olympic Games, and future games in Brazil, will include similar opportunities.

Evan R. Ward is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University and studies the history of global tourism development. He can be reached at evan_ward@byu.edu.

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