The most remarkable thing about Sochi is not its horrendous cost, or that it has brought back a touch of the cold war of Russia v the West, but that it has stood the whole idea of the Olympics on its head.
This very special idea is that a city, not a country, hosts the Games. The city may prove an inadequate host, as some have done, but what is taken for granted is that the city existed before it launched a bid. However, Sochi 2014 is the first time a city was created to host the Olympics after the bid was won.
The place where the venues are did not exist when the Vladimir Putin-led bid won the hosting rights in 2007. The real city of Sochi is 45 minutes away by train and has, in effect, lent its name to the Games. You only have to go there to realise it is quite detached from the actual events and has little of the much talked about Olympic feel. To describe these as the Sochi Games would be like staging 2012 in Basildon or High Wycombe and calling it the London Games.
Unlike other Olympics, you cannot leave venues and interact with the local communities because they simply do not exist. Indeed, Sochi 2014 gives the impression it is the real‑life version of the Hollywood movie Field of Dreams. In that film an Iowa corn farmer, hearing voices telling him ‘if you build it, he will come’, interprets that as a command to put a baseball diamond in his fields. When he does the Chicago Black Sox team reappear.
But while Kevin Costner, playing the farmer, created one baseball diamond, Putin has created two special Olympic cities. The bigger one is along the Black Sea where ice hockey, curling, skating are taking place and some 80 per cent of the athletes are staying, while the other is in the mountains for high-altitude sports and bears the evocative name of Russia’s great literary figure, Maxim Gorky.
What makes this even more novel is that in addition to new railway stations and hotels, three churches have been built although two of them are still to be finished and have a touch of Disneyland about them.
The churches will ensure that, whatever happens in the Games, Sochi 2014 will make history. Other Olympics debate their sporting legacy but in the years ahead the discussion here will be about the religious legacy. The question will be now that Putin has built his churches, will the faithful rush to fill them?
Russians I have spoken to shrug and consider it as part of their President’s relaunch of the country but, because Putin was provided this opportunity by the International Olympic Committee, it raises the crucial question of how Olympic cities are chosen. Recall that Sochi beat off the challenge of Salzburg, which would not have needed to build churches to prove it is a living community.
That the Olympics should explore new worlds is laudable. But in going to places it has never been to, it needs to make sure countries do not import people and build infrastructure on desolate land merely to stage Games? That was certainly not the idea of Pierre de Coubertin, the creator of the modern Games, who saw the Olympics being in established cities and through sport linking with the existing community there.