With the Sochi Winter Olympics more than three years off, the city still maintains an aura of mystery to most Americans. Not for Luke Bodensteiner, the vice president for athletics at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA), who has already visited the 2014 venues twice.
Bodensteiner’s first trip to Sochi was with the International Ski Federation (FIS) two years ago, when he helped with a training seminar for some of the initial Olympic volunteers. His latest visit was what he termed a “scouting mission”–looking for ways to give American athletes advantages in 2014. FasterSkier caught up with Bodensteiner upon his return.
FasterSkier: Can you start out by giving me a general sense of what it’s like in Sochi?
Luke Bodensteiner: It’s a pretty cool setup. The city of Sochi is big–400,000—and it stretches over 120 kilometers of coastline down the Black Sea. Apparently, they call it Europe’s longest city. They have two million visitors each summer—people from Moscow go down there, Stalin had a dock down there, Putin’s got his summer getaway.
You fly into the airport, and then going east is the city. West of the airport, you’ve got where the ice venues are going. They’re all going into one massive complex: hockey arenas, skating are down there. It’s 100 meters from the beach, which is pretty wild. Then you go up this river valley for about 25 kilometers, and that’s where all the skiing and snowboarding is.
They’re building a light rail from the airport—transport-wise it’s going to be really slick. The teams will do the same drill. It’s about 25 minutes up to the little village up there. Basically, [the train] drops you off at a gondola station. About 3,000 people an hour is what they can carry.
It’s an eight-minute gondola ride up to the gravity sports side, and then the nordic is on an adjacent ridge. The athletes’ villages are up on the mountain as well. It’s pretty unique— the only venue you can [access] from the valley is ski jumping, which is separated from where the cross-country venue is. Everything else is up on the mountain. As a spectator, you take an eight-minute gondola ride up to the venues on top of these mountain ridges.
FS: And how are things progressing at the mountain venue?
LB: I was there a couple years ago—it was a quaint, quiet place. I swear there must not have been more than a thousand people living in this mountain valley. The houses were really old, pretty dilapidated, really not much going up there at all. The Russian government decided, based on the Olympic bid, that they could make Sochi a year-round resort. Because [now], it’s basically a summer resort from April until November—the ski season’s going to be November to April. So they’re pumping $15 billion into this kind of infrastructure—the railroad, and they’re building a four-lane highway on the other side of the river from the existing highway. Then they’re really, really, developing this ski area, a lot of development beyond what’s required for the Olympics. They’re going to make a world-class alpine ski resort there. Most of the lifts and gondolas are in there now. [It’s] attracted a bunch of investors that are developing this section of the valley called Rosa Khutor, right along the river. They’ve got about two-dozen
high-end hotels in the works right now, and some are getting pretty close to completion. It’s going to be another little Whistler, basically, being built up there.
That’s probably going to be the most active place during the Olympics, because it’s all skiing and snowboarding, as opposed to the ice venues, which are actually out of town. The development up in Rosa Khutor is going to be hotels, high-end shops, nice restaurants—there are already pretty cool little restaurants and bars opening up in the town now, as the people start to get settled in there. It’s going to go from this sleepy mountain village into this glitzy mountain ski resort in the course of the next couple years.
It’s going to be cool—the transportation should be pretty easy for everybody based on the train, and the location of the hotels with the gondolas going up to the venues. It’s an Olympics you’re going be able to do basically without a vehicle.
Even venue to venue, between alpine, snowboarding, and freestyle, you ski to those venues and they’re all together, and then nordic is on an adjacent ridge. They’re planning on building kind of a peak-to-peak gondola that connects those two venues, so from a spectator’s standpoint, it’s going to be a basically a no-brainer.
FS: What were you doing in Sochi on this trip?
LB: This time we were there basically on a scouting mission for our own [USSA’s] purposes, with the USOC. It was Bill Marolt and myself, and one other guy from USSA, and two senior guys from the USOC. What we did really well in Vancouver was to create a really effective performance environment—for our teams, with the except of nordic, we had everybody living outside the village, where we had our own nutrition programs, our own housing. We had a really awesome environment for the athletes, and it’s something we want to carry into Sochi. It’s going to be a much different environment than Sochi, though—in Vancouver we had the home-field advantage because we were basically in the U.S.
As nice as Sochi’s going to be from a resort perspective, it’s still different—it’s far away. You can still tell you’re in Russia, which is actually pretty cool from an atmosphere perspective. So we want to make sure we’re well-organized going into this, and understand what our strategy is. How we get them fed, how we get them doing their dryland training in the right way. We’re in there pretty early, but we’re also not the first team to go there—the big teams are starting to get organized as well. We also operate a pretty big hospitality program, and we have to get a handle on that for our supporters.
FS: Have you been to the cross-country venue on either of your trips?
LB: On both trips I’ve been up there, in the area where the stadium is. Right now, they’re just starting to cut trials—they’ve got them all flagged off. When we were there, [Norwegian trail designer] Hermod Bjorkestol was there with [FIS Race Director] Jurg Capol, and they were sort of putting the final stamp of approval on the actual trees they’re going to cut and the dirt they’re going to move. They’re going to be done with that venue by next summer.
FS: Could you get a sense of what the trails were like?
LB: Not really—it’s pretty wooded up there, other than the areas they cut for the alpine runs. It’s good cross-country terrain up there—basically, they’re on top of a fairly rounded ridge, so it’s got really good terrain to work with. It’s not skiing on the side of an alpine mountain.
FS: One of the things we’d heard after Vancouver from a number of athletes and officials was that they’d like to see future Games in an area where the weather is more consistent than it was in 2010. Do you think that will be the case here?
LB: I have not been there in the winter, so I don’t really know what to expect yet. We looked at the meteorological data, and they get a lot of snow. And it’s fairly high altitude, 1450 meters. It’s fairly far south—it’s on the same latitude basically as Nice, which is why it’s sort of a subtropical getaway. What we’ve heard is that it can be a little bit of a mixed bag. Some fog; it can be wet, with pretty good amount of snow, but we don’t know what kind of snow it is—whether it’s warm and dry, or whether it’s Whistler snow. They’re sort of predicting that it’s a fairly short season there—from late March, they’re pretty unsure as to actually how much snow they’ll have up there. I’m anticipating it’ll be on the warm side. I don’t know what to expect in terms of moisture, or how wet the area’s going to be.
FS: Will everything be done on time?
LB: The first time I went there, they were doing construction already up at the cross-country venue. They were using really old equipment, tractors and stuff, and the workers would break for lunch and you’d see them break out a bottle of vodka. You go back there now and they are literally working 24/7—they probably have 20,000 people there on construction. Everywhere you go is just going full speed. They’re making impressive progress—they’ve definitely put it in high gear. From the ice arenas down in the city all the way up this corridor—you drive that whole 25-kilometer distance and it’s one big construction site.
FS: Did you get a sense of some of the safety concerns? I know that Sochi is not too far from Dagestan and Chechnya—two of the areas where Russia has had unrest.
LB: They’re in a politically pretty hot area there, and I’ve heard they’ve had some sort of threats already from whatever political factions they have down there. When I looked at it from an athlete security point of view, it’s pretty sweet, particularly in the village. The only way to get up to the village and venues is on skis on a gondola—they’re pretty isolated up in the mountain. They’re going to be pretty well-protected.
FS: Do the locals seem enthusiastic?
LB: Down in the city, they’re pretty excited about it—you already see ‘Sochi 2014” all over the place. Having the Olympics has kind of opened up that city’s persona a little bit. They know they’re part of the international community, and the whole world’s coming there. I think you get the sense that people really care about sport, and it’s really, I think, helping to modernize Russian sport, where it used to be so much about winning and national pride, and therefore you’d get some doping. Now, I think they view sport as something that’s positive, something that’s healthy, something for youth. I think having the Olympics is really going to transform how the Russian people view sport, which will be good for everybody.
FS: It’s interesting, because it sounds like they’re basically putting in a whole ski area in a place where the sport doesn’t really have any tradition.
LB: They’ve had limited skiing activity there, I guess, in the past, and they’re building it now as a national training center. The way it will be used most, probably, post-Olympics, other than as a national training center, is to leave behind this resort. I don’t know what they anticipate in terms of what kind of impact it might have on local kids getting into the sport, but it will be a nice asset for tourists, that’s for sure.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.