Take the example of Vancouver. When the Canadian city entered the Olympic process, it did not view the Games as an end in itself, but as a means to push the city’s ongoing urban sustainable development agenda. As part of a thoughtful tightrope walk, Vancouver officials carefully weighed short-term Games interests, upheld by the IOC and Vancouver’s organizing committee, against long-term improvements of environmental quality and social justice. The resulting Olympic Village – currently North America’s greenest neighborhood according to the LEED ND standard – massively enriched the city planning staff’s urban sustainability expertise, thus accelerating sustainability drives in the areas of energy efficiency, green construction, district energy, urban design, and agriculture. Taking advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to experiment with Olympics’ “urban sustainability laboratory,” the city promoted the advantages of public space and transit among its citizenry, giving rise to a lasting uptick in transit use, walking, and biking. A year after the Games, the share of sustainable mobility had grown by almost twenty percent.
Barcelona ’92 was not entirely about the Games, either, but focused on Barcelona’s strategic transition from an industrial, decaying city to a vibrant tourist destination with a clever blend of industry, commerce, culture, and art. Its goal was to offer great public spaces and amenities as well as a brilliant mix of restored historic buildings and top-notch modern architecture.
Against this background, Sochi’s Olympic story might have followed in the footsteps of Barcelona ’92 or Vancouver ’10. A jewel resort city already blessed with the riches of climate, breathtaking landscape, architecture, urban environment, history, and culture, it could have used the Games to revitalize key areas, modernize infrastructure, remove development bottlenecks, catalyze city-wide, self-sustained urban regeneration processes, and promote urban sustainability, while also preserving and building on its local character and strengths. Sochi could have invested in its environmental assets, historic preservation, modern architecture, sustainable mobility, pedestrian environment, and community development. It might have used the Games to promote a participatory planning agenda, actively engaging underrepresented local communities in the urban design process and building broad public-private and social partnerships for development.
Well, the days of Idealistic daydreams are over, as the unfortunate political and planning failures of the Olympic process in Sochi reveal. Instead, I would like to focus on some positive outcomes of the Games that are often overlooked by global observers. The Russian International Olympic University will be training experts in sports, venue, and event management and has already launched its Master of Sports Administration program for 27 students from 14 countries. Preparing for the Paralympic Games, Sochi became the first Russian city to provide a barrier-free environment for disabled people in line with international accessibility standards. This is reflected in a new set of rules and regulations on “universal design” in construction, adopted by more than 200 Russian cities in 2013. What is more, the Olympics have given rise to a new green construction industry, a sector previously non-existent in Russia. National green building standards have been developed and important lessons learnt from the application of eco-efficiency practices during the construction of Olympic venues.
Moreover, the Games have greatly contributed to the revival of Russia’s volunteer and youth movement; a movement that used to thrive in the USSR, but was later deemed incompatible with the country’s new market-based and capitalist values. Also on the plus side, the bid has brought improved medical facilities and 300,000 sq. meters of social housing to Sochi, both badly needed.
To me, However, the most inspiring Games legacy remains … the tiny Old Believers’ cemetery, located right in the center of the Olympic Park. It might seem out of place and even disturbing, but for me it is an encouraging symbol of the resurgence of Russia’s civil society. In their quiet and peaceful solemnity, these graves will outlive the Olympic fuss and its decadent decay. This cemetery is the one structure the Olympic bulldozers did not dare to flatten, the one sacred thing that the locals, even those who were evicted, managed to defend.
Text: Ksenia Mokruchina
Header image: Olympic Rings © Sochi2014 Winter Games