Saturday, February 8, 2014

Sochi 2014

If you're anything like me, when you heard that the 2014 Winter Olympics were being held in Sochi, you said to yourself, and may still be saying, "Where in the world is Sochi?"

The easy part of that answer is the one thing that you likely already know, that it's in Russia. Okay, so the Olympics are being held in Russia, that's easy enough.

But while we've all heard of Russian cities such as Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and, uh, er...yeah. Go ahead, name another Russian city. Any city or town at all. Exactly. It's a massive country, the largest in the world, covering 1/8 of the planet's land-mass, and has been a major American rival for a century, but you're lucky if you know two cities there.

Sochi is actually ranked 52nd in size as a Russian city with approximately 340,000 citizens. To give you an American comparison, Bakersfield, California is our 52nd-largest city with a population very comparable to that of Sochi.

While you and I may have never heard of it before these Olympics, Sochi is actually very popular in Russia as a tourist resort area, with about 2 million people visiting each summer. It sprawls along 90-miles on the southwest coast at the very edge of the Black Sea, and is one of the few places in all of Russia with a sub-tropical climate as well, featuring sandy beaches and palm trees.

It is about as European as a Russian city can get as well. Almost 1,000 miles away from Moscow, the Sochi area, divided administratively into Sochi 'proper' and a handful of other districts, lies right at what would be considered the border of Europe and Asia.

The tropical, seaside coastal atmosphere doesn't tell the whole Sochi story, however. You also have the nearby scenic Caucasus Mountains. The wide variety of seasonal sporting opportunities has made it a popular area for sporting activities. The local tennis school, in fact, launched the careers of both Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Maria Sharipova, among others.

As with most of the world outside of the United States, football (soccer) is a major sporting activity. Sochi has been home to a Russian club team for the last couple decades, and is home to the year-round training facility for the Russian national men's and women's teams.

In July of 2007, the Sochi area was awarded the Winter Olympics and Paralympics as the first-ever Winter Games to be held in Russia. Despite it's scenic beauty and the facilities already in place, the area was in no way considered "Olympics-ready", and Russia had to commit an initial $12 billion investment package to get the infrastructure up to standards.

It is estimated that it has cost a total of nearly $50 billion in a private/government construction of facilities for the Olympic Games. Everything from the electrical/power infrastructure to the airport to the railway had to be upgraded to accommodate the Olympics, and then you have construction of many of the event venues themselves.

An investment of this size by a major world power like Russia means that Sochi will not be a one-off event location. After the Olympics, the investment in infra-structure to bring the area up to such a major standard will pay off in other events as well. Sochi will begin holding the Russian Formula One Grand Prix this year, and host the 2018 FIFA World Cup matches.

The Winter Olympics in Sochi will be the largest ever held in terms of the number of events. There will be 98 separate events held in 15 disciplines across 7 separate sports from skiing to hockey to ice skating. The Opening and Closing ceremonies and some events will be held in the newly constructed Fisht Olympic Stadium, named after the nearby towering Mount Fisht.

There are a variety of star performers to watch at Sochi, perhaps led by the numerous NHL professional players who will participate for each nation in the hockey competition. The American hockey team will include such familiar names as Zach Parise, former Flyer James van Riemsdyk, and Phil Kessel, whose sister Amanda is a key player on the US women's hockey team. The Canadians, always an Olympic hockey favorite, will include former Flyer Jeff Carter.

If you're a fan of the our hometown Philadelphia Flyers, a number of the team's players will be participating, though not our snubbed team captain Claude Giroux, notably left off Team Canada's roster. Flyers participating include Kimmo Timonen with Finland, Jakub Voracek with the Czechs, Mark Streit with Switzerland, and Andrej Meszaros with Slovakia.

Aside from hockey, key Americans to watch include snowboarders Shaun White and Kelly Clark, figure skaters Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold, skiing stars Bode Miller and Mikaela Shiffrin, speed skaters Heather Richardson, J.R. Celski and Shani Davis, the ice dance team of Meryl Davis & Charlie White, and bobsledders Steven Holcomb and Lolo Jones, the American summer Olympics track star controversially named to the USA women's bobsled team here.

Hovering in the background, and hopefully remaining there, is the always present fact that the Olympic Games are set on a major worldwide stage. Most of the planet is following on television and the internet. There have been specific threats, particularly by the usual Islamic radicals, of attacks against the Games. Security is tight in Sochi, with Russian President Vladimir Putin claiming a "Ring of Steel" has been provided for the athletes and attendees.

The next two weeks should provide a wide variety of winter sporting entertainment and human interest stories from this summery Russian resort town. Hopefully now we all are a little more familiar with the area and the "home team" American athletes. They will be joined by worldwide stars who will capture our attention as the drama of the Olympic Games unfolds.

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