The forgotten Olympic city: The Sochi Games aren't actually in Sochi

Dan Wetzel

ADLER, Russia — After the opulent sporting venues, hundreds of box hotels, the freshly built amusement park, the new roads and train lines, the colorful, if questionable, brick boardwalk along the Black Sea, and the waterfront "McMansions" (strangely unoccupied) — after all of that — the first thing you notice in Adler are the fences.

The fences are everywhere.

They are a metallic construct with a stonewall design on the bottom and five wide, brown, faux-wood slats rising up to about eight feet. They line roads, run along back alleys and sometimes fence in other fences.

Government contractors threw them up all over the place, locals say, to keep tourist eyes from seeing what's behind them: construction sites, swamp, poverty — in other words, Adler.

[Related: American snowboarder Kaitlyn Farrington wins gold in women's halfpipe]

These are officially the Sochi Olympics, but the games are not being played in Sochi. They are happening in unheralded Adler, technically a microdistrict (in Russian city planning parlance) of Sochi, its larger neighbor up the coast.

View photos

Adler is the town the Olympics ignore and the Russians prefer you not see behind the fences. Yet it is — especially the area south of Olympic Park — the center of Vladimir Putin's big, bold bet to turn this sleepy village, once mostly swampland hard by the closed border of Abkhazia, into an international vacation destination.

Adler is very much its own world, different from Sochi, whose city center takes two buses and a 45-minute train ride to reach. That is if you can afford the train. Many here can't. Then it's two hours by bus, they say.

Putin promised the International Olympic Committee that if it awarded Russia the 2014 Winter Games, he would essentially construct a new city to host them. He estimated he had just 10 percent to 15 percent of the infrastructure.

[Related: American skier Gus Kenworthy poses with and hopes to bring home stray Sochi dogs]

Seven years and $51 billion later this is it, an area of stunning contrasts and hopeful momentum, with plenty of warning signs of too much ambition and too little quality construction.

This is where new meets old but with questions about whether much will change at all.

According to locals from street corners to small restaurants, there is a clear appreciation for some of Putin's billions that came here, that once-rocky, unpaved streets are now smooth.

Yet, there is also a wariness about the government getting this right, even as literally hundreds of construction workers continue to pound nails, lay brick and spread paint in a furious attempt to finish what is way behind schedule.

They never did get it all done in time for the Olympics. It's getting it right that matters now.

Consider the waterfront, where a new brick path stretches for miles along the Black Sea. It's beautiful and ornate, each brick laid individually in decorative and colorful patterns. There is a knee-friendly bike and jogging path running along it. You can see generations of Russian families taking strolls, glancing west at the water and east at the towering mountains.

View photos

Yet sitting just a few feet from the rocky shoreline, with only a concrete seawall in between, how does the ground underneath the bricks not shift, even subtly, and ruin the entire thing? You can already see the signs of it, buckling and doomed for repair.

And what of the waterfront buildings? Many are beyond nice, with swimming pools, concrete patios and floor-to-ceiling windows. There are hotel complexes with indoor-outdoor pools. Yet almost all are empty, not ready for the biggest event this town will hold. There are mattresses on beds, but exterior walls lack siding, suggesting a backward construction process. So who buys them? Who uses them? Maybe dignitaries will stay in them for the upcoming G8 summit.

Landscaping features areas where dirt was thrown down only to have seed planted before the clumps and mounds could be raked smooth. There is no way the grass survives long term.

[Photos: Sochi basks in warm sunshine]

Then there are the approximately 200 "hotels" built to house volunteers and media in tightly clustered projects. They are supposed to be sustainable, yet are cheaply put together. Where do the people come from to fill all of those? And what are they coming to?

It's almost maddening. This could have been great, an incredible scene for these Games and beyond.

And it points to a strange dichotomy.

It's not that this is cheap. It's just not put together quite right.

It's not that this isn't better, more modern. It's just too often this feels and looks like a movie soundstage, so much thrown up you wonder what's real and what's an illusion.

It's not that this can't work. It's just impossible to say at this point.

Putin says it will transform this region of the country and give Russia a winter playland to help maintain and attract the young and affluent.

It is folly for a Westerner to live here for two weeks and define what a complicated place such as Adler really is or will be.

What is clear is that here where the Games are being played and where the buildings have risen and where the legacy will play out are government fences everywhere.

What remains behind them is the question.

Click here to see more photos of Adler

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