#Sochifornia: Locals Say 2014 Olympics Helped Sochi Shed Its Soviet Sheen
One of the first things you notice approaching the old Olympic Park of Sochi in Russia is the unmistakable shape of a Disney-style castle, flanked by the unmistakable shapes of roller coasters, surrounded by clusters of palm trees.
"A guest of my tour once told me this area really reminded him of Miami," says Natalya, the guide of a sightseeing tour titled "Olympic Legacy" as the bus pulls into the epicenter of the 2014 Winter Games. She artfully describes the encircling Olympic stadiums: a spinning puck, a frozen water drop, an iceberg — all sounding very nice in the subtropical June heat of this seaside resort.
All the Olympic construction, including the many ski trails, villages and other sporting infrastructure — not to mention the extraordinarily costly railway and roads — are estimated to have cost Russia $51 billion for the most expensive Winter Olympics in history.
But if you ask locals, they say the Olympics, for all their cost, have taken Sochi to a world-class level. Surfers, skate- and snowboarders and hip artsy young Russians have even dubbed the place #Sochifornia — as in, Russia's answer to California.
"With the Olympics ... more people found out that wow, Sochi isn't some Soviet-era city on the sea," says Alina Kolesnikova, editor of the local magazine SCAPP. "The tag painted an image of palm trees in the Olympic Park, girls in short shorts on long boards, new coffee shops."
She traces the history of #Sochifornia through the groups of extreme-sport fiends, fashionistas and the creative circuit who were discovering a city — in their own country — with beaches, dramatic sunsets and snow-topped mountains. That's after decades of Sochi carrying a Soviet sheen — a semi-wild resort on the Black Sea, where you get a photo with an exotic monkey, dance to some oldies, eat fresh fruit and boiled corn by the seashore.
Even in the hype of the World Cup, you can still find some of that history, like the classic statue of Lenin in a square. But then, there are little touches — such as gleaming five-star hotels and crosswalks that ask pedestrians to "please finish crossing the street" in English — that show the city has moved on.
Here for the 2018 World Cup, played inside the former Olympic stadium, crowds of tourists from across Russia shuttle through the Olympic sightseeing spots. People queue up to take photos at the peak of a mountain where several Olympic ski lanes began in 2014. A handful of thrill-seekers line up to paraglide off a cliff.
"All [Olympic] ski lanes are open for use, all of them. They can add artificial snow if needed," says Natalya the tour guide, who declines to give her last name. She describes how she once witnessed a couple get ready to hit the beach immediately after snowboarding down the mountainside.
She concedes that some of the structures have proven useless post-Olympics, such as the snowboarding half-pipes. But the Olympic villages down at the foot of the mountain have mostly been turned into ski resorts. They are accessible from the city of Sochi by that expensive high-speed rail, over which locals appear divided: Some say it's too crowded, too infrequent, too expensive; others say it's a godsend.
Experts say maintaining Olympic structures essentially requires paying for them over and again roughly every decade. Around the world, Olympic sites are known to turn into ghost towns.
But in Sochi, most of the construction was co-funded by private investors, who are now hustling to turn a profit. Not all of them do, but they are making changes.
The stadiums now house a public rink, a tennis academy, facilities for gymnastics, curling and basketball. All manner of events are routed through here: youth festivals, comedy shows, big music concerts, productions staged by champion ice dancer Ilya Averbukh. The seaside resort has even fielded its first hockey team.
On summer evenings, the pool around the Olympic flame cauldron acts as a singing fountain, performing impressive light-up renditions of Queen's "The Show Must Go On" or a Michael Jackson medley to awestruck visitors lined up eight-deep in a horseshoe around the water.
Exact tourism numbers for Sochi are hard to nail down — local press say the region doesn't track tourism spending, but has noticed an uptick in job openings in recent years.
"We joke that there's such a stream of tourists that you could put up a table, spread some nails on it, put a jar of some kind of sauce and people will dip those nails in sauce and eat and pay money," says Roman Sherbin, who grew up in Sochi and now works at "Center Omega," a private company owned by the regional government that runs some Olympic hotels and structures.
Sherbin says the Games helped improve Sochi into a better domestic vacation destination for Russians: "Now I have a choice," he says. "If I want, I'll go somewhere else; but if want, I should have a high-quality choice of a vacation resort at home."
Lately, vacations in Sochi have been particularly associated with wealthy Russian politicians and businessmen who are restricted from traveling abroad, because of sanctions. This means a stint in Sochi can run a wide gamut in terms of cost. The winter vacations still aren't as popular as summer ones.
In the heart of Sochi, along the pedestrian street that used to be a busy road, people are taking photographs with a "RUSSIA 2018" sign put up for the World Cup. Behind it is one more nod to #Sochifornia — a location of the coffee shop chain called Surf Coffee, lined with surfboards, serving up Wagon Wheels, chill tunes and cold brews on tap.
On Instagram, the tag is still popular among young vacationers, but lately also among salespeople peddling purses, jewelry or vacation packages. In true form, Kolesnikova says, the crowd that spread the idea of #Sochifornia now thinks the word is actually kind of passé.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.