The scent of fresh cement wafts through the air as Dmitri Grigoriev describes the glistening Adler Arena, one of several new venues built on this Black Sea coast for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
His voice echoes through the 8,000-seat speed skating center as he points to a patchwork of mirror-like panels that spans the ceiling — state-of-the-art technology, the arena’s young, well-spoken general manager says, designed to help preserve the ice.
The ventilation system encircling the rink regulates the climate with stunning precision: around 57 degrees for the skaters and 62 degrees for the spectators.
“It creates an invisible wall between the athletes and the crowd,” he says.
Welcome to President Vladimir Putin’s $50-billion dream come true.
This provincial resort is weeks away from hosting the largest international coming out party Russia has ever seen.
A vast complex of hotels has sprung up. A new high-speed rail system connects various points of the sprawling, 90-mile long coastal region. This old playground for Soviet workers is being transformed into a showcase for modern Russia where well-constructed roads and widespread Wi-Fi symbolize a country moving successfully into the future.
That’s one version.
For many locals who have witnessed that seven-year transformation firsthand, Putin’s dream is a living nightmare that’s wrought what they say is irreparable physical, moral and environmental damage on a low-key area once known for its relative tranquility and rugged beauty.
From alleged mass corruption to indiscriminate construction, the burden of Putin’s personal project has left few here excited for the games.
“This is a shame for Russia, and a shame for Putin,” says Valery Suchkov, a local activist and member of a public city planning committee. “They’re going to write on his grave that he was a destroyer, not a creator.”
The first hints of massive-scale preparations are visible just outside the newly re-christened international airport.
The drive takes visitors past the new train station, a behemoth glass structure that hulks over lowlands, before winding them along a new highway that snakes through a flurry of construction and along the ragged coast, where a hodgepodge of hotels peppers the seaside hills.
During the day, traffic cripples the main artery that connects downtown Sochi with Adler, site of the indoor games 30 minutes away. For that reason alone, most taxi drivers here are cursing the Olympics before they’ve even begun.
Almost everywhere, sidewalks have been torn up and replaced and brand-new railings, benches and garbage cans installed. Construction cranes seem to outnumber the multitude of high-rises.
Sergei Domorat, deputy head of the city’s tourism department overseeing Olympic preparations, praises the breakneck construction for modernizing the city’s infrastructure.
“Now we’ve got a resort city on an international level and we have to start thinking about how to develop it after the Olympics,” he said.
Already, the Coastal Cluster — where the ice-based games will be held — is due to host a leg of the Formula One World Championship next year. Developers hope Krasnaya Polyana, the Olympic mountain site, will become an international ski destination.
But Putin’s pet project has come with a cost. Critics at home and abroad have slammed what they call corruption and mismanaged spending of mythic proportions.
Two opposition politicians who published a now-infamous report on Olympic finances allege that mass graft helped inflate the final cost more than four times its initially projected amount of $12 billion.
Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk estimate that the highway leading from Adler to Krasnaya Polyana cost roughly $10,000 per square meter, the price of luxury housing in central Moscow.
Last week, a Swiss member of the International Olympic Committee said a third of the spending — the vast majority of it state cash controlled by firms and individuals close to the Kremlin—went toward bribes, kick-backs and other corruption.
Beyond those allegations, an array of local issues have infuriated residents but rarely made international headlines.
Ecologists say the massive construction has ruined the area’s once-pristine nature by heaving clouds of dust and debris into air otherwise prized for its therapeutic qualities — partly the result of hosting the Winter Olympics in a subtropical region unsuited for the event.
Residents have been evicted from their homes, some illegally, others without proper compensation, human rights activists have documented.
Meanwhile, local activists who attempted to shed light on those issues have been harassed and prosecuted.
Anna Gritsevich, a reporter for Sochinskie Novosti, an independent online newspaper, has covered almost every Olympic-related plight in the region. Most painful for her, she says, has been watching the illegal dumping from construction sites pollute a major local river and trigger landslides that have pushed homes off their foundations.
“People are offended and they are suffering,” she says.
Take Galina Vasilievna, a 62-year-old retiree who says her central Sochi apartment has been deprived of hot water for six months because of unspecified repairs.
“Before hosting such a major event, any normal, responsible person would have run tests and made the proper preparations,” she says. “But nothing’s been done here for 50 or 60 years — everything’s rotten.”
“Putin doesn’t give a damn,” she adds. “He simply has his Olympic ambitions.”
As the games approach, there’s little doubt these games will go down in history – it just depends how.
Kremlin critics have questioned why the Olympics are being held near violent regions in North Caucasus, where Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov has called on militants to disrupt the event.
After twin suicide bombings that left more than 30 people dead last month in the southern city of Volgograd, officials hope a deadly disruption by Islamist rebels won’t transform the games into tragedy.
The authorities have launched a massive security operation, setting up a special exclusion zone around the wider Sochi area.
But Suchkov and other local activists hope the games prove personally disappointing for Putin.
He calls them “a mirror” he hopes will broadcast the array of violations committed here to the rest of the international community.
Despite the Kremlin’s recent effort to polish the country’s image by releasing high-profile political prisoners, US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders have bowed out from attending the games.
Putin “has shown all his true qualities,” Suchkov says. “Now let everyone watch and draw their own conclusions.”