Winter Olympics in the subtropics: Just add snow
Organizers of the Winter Olympics chose a very to-the-point name for one especially critical program going into the games: "Sochi 2014: Guaranteed Snow."
As Russia makes new efforts to smooth over criticism of its president ahead of the games, an issue still often overlooked is the massive—and expensive—effort to make sure that Sochi, a subtropical beach resort along the shores of the Black Sea, has enough snow to pull off the games in the first place.
It might be natural. It might be man-made. It might even be "used" from last winter. But there will be snow for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics from Feb. 7-23, 2014.
"The Sochi 2014 snow program will guarantee snow, whatever the weather," Mikko Martikainen, CEO of Finnish company Snow Secure, told CNBC. (NBC and its sister networks, including CNBC, will carry broadcasts of the Winter Olympics from Sochi.)
Sochi Olympics: By the numbers
|7||Winter sports represented (biathlon, bobsleigh, curling, ice hockey, luge, skating and skiing)|
|11||Venues to be used in the Games|
|18||Days for Sochi Games from start to finish|
|48||Distance (in kilometers) between Sochi's 'Coastal' and 'Mountain' clusters|
|98||Sets of bronze, silver and gold medals|
|6,000||Athletes competing in games|
|25,000||Volunteers working at games|
|$50 billion||Estimated cost of Sochi Olympics|
Sochi will have 500 snow guns ready to make artificial snow, said Martikainen. His company has also "stored" 710,000 cubic meters of snow that it took from the Caucasus Mountains last winter. The huge mounds stand covered by massive insulated blankets.
Sochi has plans to quickly transport snow, if necessary, to venues such as the Rosa Khutor ski resort. But organizers said they expect to get enough natural snow, without resorting to backup measures.
"Taken together, these measures will mean that snow is guaranteed, whatever the weather," the Sochi 2014 press office said in a statement.
Sochi's temperatures in February average in the high 40s Fahrenheit, said Eric Leister, a meteorologist at AccuWeather.com. Olympic athletes and visitors should expect a wet, winter climate more like Seattle than Squaw Valley.
But temperatures often drop below freezing not too far away.
"The key is they have that big increase in elevation just off to the east where they can hold skiing and outdoor events. It could be 50 degrees in Sochi itself—but 32 degrees in the mountains," Leister said.
The Sochi Olympics will be divided into two "clusters." A coastal cluster in swampy lowlands south of the old city will host indoor hockey, figure skating and the opening and closing ceremonies. A mountain cluster, half an hour away by train in Krasnaya Polyana, will host things like downhill skiing.
Putin's pet project
The Sochi Olympics are the pet project of Russian President Vladimir Putin. With the games expected to be the most expensive in history at $50 billion, Putin has come under attack from critics who allege that officials and business oligarchs close to him have benefited from the spending.
Russia built an ice rink in Guatemala in 2007 to impress the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and Putin personally lobbied IOC members with a speech in English, promising to have facilities built, on time, at a cost of $12 billion.
It worked. The IOC picked Sochi over finalists Salzburg, Austria—a place that knows a thing or two about winter games—and Pyeongchang, South Korea (which was subsequently named host city for the 2018 Winter Olympics).
So why did Russia choose as its best candidate a place that had virtually no alpine sports until two decades ago?
"The short answer is because the president of Russia, Mr. Putin, wants it," said Simone Baumann, producer of the documentary "Putin's Games," which examines alleged extortion in Sochi and the plight of residents who've lost their homes to construction. "It's where he likes to ski."
Sochi first became popular in the 1930s under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who built a dacha there. Over the decades, it became the unofficial "summer" capital for Kremlin officials and cosmonauts. Once Putin began to ski at Krasnaya Polyana, it became a winter vacation spot for Russia's elite.
'They have to function, or else they're fired immediately'
In a report this year, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and activist Leonid Martynyuk called Sochi an "unprecedented thieves' caper" in which Russian businessmen have "embezzled" $30 billion of the $50 billion budgeted for Sochi.
The press office at the Russian embassy in Washington denied the charges. "Those allegations by Mr. Nemtsov are absolutely false," the press office told CNBC.
Nemtsov, a Sochi native, tweaked Putin: "It's hard to find a place on the map of Russia where there hasn't been snow and where winter sports are not developed. But Putin found such a spot and decided to hold the Winter Olympics there. It's the city of Sochi."
Still, the Olympic spirit has a way of overcoming obstacles. Baumann said she thinks Sochi will pull it off. She's more worried about the aftermath, when empty facilities often stand as mute protest against the cost of staging the Olympics.
With his reputation at stake, Putin is cracking the whip, said Baumann. "The people working for him, they have to function, or else they're fired immediately."
—By Michael McCarthy, special to CNBC.com. McCarthy covers sports business for Advertising Age in New York. He's been a sportswriter for USA TODAY, Newsday, the NFL and SportsBizUSA. Follow him on Twitter