Why Sochi's Winter Games are so hot

Why Sochi's Winter Games are so hot

SOCHI, Russia – There's a palm tree by the Iceberg Skating Palace and an ice cream stand next to the Bolshoy Ice Dome. A few miles away by the waterfront, a woman lays out a beach towel to soak up some rays.

Yes, here in Sochi, the Winter Olympics is having a bit of an identity crisis.

In a country that features some of the most hostile and icy terrain on earth (Siberia, anyone?), Russia has brought an event that glorifies the frostiest of seasons to its warmest and sunniest point.

Thick winter coats have no place here, not with temperatures reaching 64 degrees Fahrenheit in the Olympic suburb of Adler on Thursday, according to Yahoo's weather app. In summer, this is sunbather central, a mecca for vacationers seeking to work on their tans and frolic in the sun. "This is where you come for the Winter Olympics," said local businessman Maxim Gorshkov. "But it is not the kind of 'winter' that you normally associate with Russia."

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The next few days are expected to remain in the 60s during the day, before dipping slightly over the weekend – enough only to turn T-shirt weather into light jacket weather.

The choice of Sochi was deliberate. Russia had no shortage of typical winter cities to select from, with remote locales such as Oymyakon and Yakutsk being as inhospitable as they are unpronounceable, with recorded temperatures as low as minus 90. Even this week, the Siberian city of Jikimda recorded a low of minus 58, an incredible 122 degrees lower than Adler.

"It is definitely not cold here," said U.S. figure skater Jason Brown. "I didn't really know exactly what to expect, but this is beautiful weather."

The modern Russia is keen to reinvent itself as a tourist haven, and Sochi is seen as one of its jewels. Indeed, the city came to prominence thanks to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who gave the area resort status and referred to it as the nation's "Summer Pearl."

"In Russia there are many places that are very cold," said Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi Organizing Committee. "This is a new idea, a special concept. We have brought the Winter Olympics to a city in the sun, where people can enjoy world-class events, but still with great weather."

The criteria for determining such things is a little complex, but by pretty much any measure Russia is regarded as being the coldest nation on earth. The country's average temperature is 21.2 degrees and large areas to the north scarcely see daylight for up to 10 months of the year.

Moscow ranks among the chilliest capitals, and as for Siberia … well, you get the picture. Sochi is very much the exception and owes its climate to both its position in the south and also some climactic freak-ology.

"Sochi is a unique place," president Vladimir Putin said in his charismatic speech to the International Olympic Committee in 2007, a key part of the successful Sochi bid. "On the seashore, you can enjoy a fine spring day, but up in the mountains, it is winter."

According to meteorologist Eric Wanenchak of AccuWeather.com, it is a combination of geography and terrain that allows Sochi to have a very different climate to the mountains inland.

"Sochi enjoys naturally higher temperatures because of its lower elevation, while being situated on edge of the Black Sea, with its typically warm waters, keeps temperatures mild," Wanenchak said. "One analogy would be Southern California, where even during winter the beaches and coastal areas are relatively mild. Go 30-40 miles inland and the mountains are high enough that when you get a winter storm you get snow up there.

"The eastern Great Lakes, specifically around Buffalo, N.Y., (is also) a major city located near a body of water with mountains not too far inland that tend to be much colder and snowier."

The relative warmth of Sochi has no impact on the coastal-based events such as figure skating, hockey and speed skating. After all, Phoenix has hosted an NHL team for the past 17 years.

Up in the nearby mountain region of Krasnaya Polyana, there was more of a worry. Just like in Whistler for the Vancouver Games of 2010, a lack of sufficient cold snap to produce enough snow caused some headaches, especially after pre-Games test events were affected in 2013.

Snowboard and alpine competitors have been unimpressed by conditions that get mushier as the day warms up. In alpine especially, where hundredths of a second can mean the difference between gold and failure, such factors play heavily.

The mountains are the only place at these Olympics that you should expect to see woolen hats and furry mittens, and even then there are plenty of hardy souls in short sleeves and shorts. Krasnaya Polyana can get seriously cold at times, but the city of Sochi is all about warmth and sees the Olympics as a chance to build a tourism hotspot that will flourish for years.

[ Photos: Tour of the Sochi Olympic village ]

This is on track to be the warmest Winter Olympics ever and a local slogan of chuvi, chichi, kvetzya (summer, winter, whenever) is evidence of the wish to create a Riviera-style destination.

This is a very different scene to your typical Winter Olympics, a world removed from most people's perceptions of a wintery Russia, and more about sunblock than Soviet Bloc.

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