"How the Sochi Games grew so expensive is a tale of Putin-era Russia in microcosm: a story of ambition, hubris, and greed leading to fabulous extravagance on the shores of the Black Sea. And extravagances, in Russia especially, come at a price."
The new road and railway to Krasnaya Polyana, the mountain resort that will host the ski and snowboard events of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, start in Adler, a beachfront town that has become a boisterous tangle of highway interchanges and construction sites. A newly opened, glass-fronted train station—the largest in Russia—sits like a sparkling prism between the green and brown peaks of the Caucasus Mountains and the lapping waves of the Black Sea.
The state agency that oversaw the infrastructure project is Russian Railways, or RZhD. The agency's head is Vladimir Yakunin, a close associate of Vladimir Putin. It oversees 52,000 miles of rail track, the third-largest network in the world, and employs nearly a million people. The 31-mile Adler-to-Krasnaya Polyana project is among its most ambitious, reminiscent in its man-against-nature quality of the Baikal-Amur Mainline railway built by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and '80s across the remote taiga forests of the Russian Far East. Now, as then, grandeur and showmanship are as important as the finished project. Putin sees the Sochi Games as a capstone to the economic and geopolitical revival of Russia, which he has effectively ruled for 14 years. The route connects the arenas and Olympic Village along the Black Sea with the mountains above. Andrey Dudnik, the deputy head of Sochi construction for RZhD, is proud of his company's accomplishment, given the region's difficult terrain and the rushed time frame for finishing construction. "Few people believed," he says. "But we did it."