By Bob Barnett
On July 4, the 111 members of the International Olympic Committee will gather in Guatemala City to decide who will host the 2014 Winter Olympics. It’s expected to be a very close vote.
Two of the candidates, Salzburg, Austria and PyeongChang, South Korea, made the shortlist in 2003, when the 2010 Games were awarded to Vancouver and Whistler.
But the third candidate city, Sochi, Russia, also has a history of bidding for the Winter Olympics, and it may have more in common with Vancouver and Whistler than Salzburg or PyeongChang.
Sochi is a resort-spa town on the Black Sea, at about the same latitude as Bucharest and Nice. Palm trees line the streets and mineral waters bubble up from the ground. Spas and more than 80,000 tourist beds are evidence that Sochi has been a place of rest and recovery for Russian workers since Czarist times.
Sochi is also the gateway to the North Caucasus, a spectacular mountain range that covers 65,000 square kilometres between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, straddling Russia and Georgia. The tallest peak is Mount Elbrus, which at 5,642 metres is the highest point on the continent.
Sochi was a candidate to host the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics, but the current bid arose from the fierce competition for the 2012 Summer Games. Madrid, New York, Paris, London and Moscow made up the shortlist of candidates for 2012, and in a showdown of such great cities of the world the Russians knew the odds of landing the Summer Olympics were slim.
So just before the vote the president of the Russian Olympic Committee and the Minister of Sport, former NHL star Viacheslav Fetisov, had a question for Paul Mathews of Whistler-based Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners.
“These two guys came to me and said, ‘Paul, we’re probably going to lose the summer Olympic bid, the competition is just so severe. Do you think (Sochi) has any potential for an Olympic Winter Games?,” Mathews recalls.
“I said, ‘well, it would be fairly interesting to move the site 1,500 km south — lose the Summer Games in Moscow and hold the Winter Games in Sochi.’ Sochi is the warmest town in Russia, sort of like Victoria, but it’s mostly the influence of the (Black) sea.”
The Russians didn’t have to go far to consult Mathews. Ecosign has been working in Russia for a decade.
In 2000 the Russian government, concerned about economic development and the amount of money Russian citizens were spending on vacations abroad, contracted Ecosign to do an evaluation of the Caucasus and the potential for ski resort development.