A Warmer Earth May Destroy Putin's Plans For A Grand Sochi Legacy

Why would anyone in their right mind want to host the monstrously expensive, logistical nightmare better known as the Olympics? What is the benefit?

It’s a question that has troubled a lot of people in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, due to be held in Sochi, Russia this week. The estimated $51 billion price tag has raised the stakes incredibly high: How could there possibly be a good return on investment here?

Most observers agree that for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Olympics are central to establishing his legacy; they are “as important to him as anything he has done,” Pussy Riot’s Masha Alekhina told the New Yorker’s David Remnick. Sure, the budget might be horribly inflated by corruption and the event plagued with security threats, but if he’s able to link a grandiose, extravagant event to his name, he will have succeeded, no matter the cost.

If all goes as planned, the Winter Olympics will put Sochi on the map as a world-class winter sports destination. Improvements in infrastructure and name-recognition will show the world that Russia is more than just the crowded mega-cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg and the frigid tundra of Siberia: It’s a holiday destination too!

There’s one big flaw in this plan, however, and it isn’t the cost, the corruption, or the security threat. It’s the weather. Or, to be more precise, the way the weather will change over the next 100 years.

A new report from Canada’s University of Waterloo, titled “The Future of the Winter Olympics in a Warmer World,” argues that climate change in the next few decades will have a disastrous effect on the legacy of many Winter Olympic Host cities: basically, it’ll become too warm to use them. This chart from the report shows the host cities that would be effected: Even under the best case scenario, Sochi fails:

Sochi was always a bit of a strange choice for a Winter Olympics. It’s one of Russia’s best-known beach resorts, known for its sub-tropical climate in summer. As a result, Russia has been hoarding snow to make sure there is enough on the ground for certain events, and they built a $8.7 billion, 31-mile road between Sochi and Polyana, a mountain resort hosting the ski and snowboard events for the games.

Russia has pumped huge amounts of money into security at Sochi, so hopefully there won’t be any terror attacks. And while corruption is obviously terrible, people may forget about the huge financial cost (not to mention the huge environmental cost) if the games are a big success. On the other hand, if the stadiums sit empty, gathering dust by 2050, people will not forget. Rather than being a testament to Putin’s grand legacy, they will be a reminder of the hubris and short-sightedness of his age.

Of course, the University of Waterloo’s report is about more than just Russia — a variety of other countries may find their Winter Olympic venues rendered useless. It’s still an important reminder, as Putin has always been a master of his own destiny, running from the tough streets of Leningrad to eventually become the most important man in the world.

Even for him, however, some things are outside of his control.

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