Sochi – the Site

The XXII Olympic Winter Games (the official title) will be held in Sochi, Russia, a resort on the Black Sea in the southern part of Russia, a little east of the Crimean Peninsula. Much has been made of Sochi as a Winter Olympic site, with critics saying it is too warm, too far south, and more a summer resort than a winter one. So let’s look at some numbers – after all, that’s what I do.

Is Sochi the southernmost site for a Winter Olympics? Nope, in fact, four other sites have been located at more southerly latitudes than Sochi, as follows:

Year     City                         NOC      Latitude (N)

1998     Nagano               JPN        36°-38′

1960     Squaw Valley   USA       39°-11′

2002     Salt Lake City  USA       40°-45′

1972     Sapporo              JPN        43°-04′

2014     Sochi                     RUS       43°-35′

Lillehammer (1994) was the northernmost Winter Olympic host city, at 61°-07′, followed by Oslo (1952) at 59°-57′.

Is Sochi at the lowest altitude of any Winter Olympic host city? Not really, although this depends on your approach to defining altitude. Most cities have a “base” altitude, and using this, Sochi is higher up than Vancouver was in 2010 – Vancouver’s base altitude on the Pacific Ocean was 0. Here are the lowest base altitudes for Olympic Winter host cities:

Year     City                        NOC      Altitude (m)

2010     Vancouver         CAN                       0

1972     Sapporo              JPN                      19

1952     Oslo                      NOR                     23

2014     Sochi                    RUS                      65

1994     Lillehammer    NOR                  208

The highest elevations for Winter Olympic hosts were Squaw Valley, California (USA) (1960) at 1,900 metres (6,235 feet) and Saint Moritz (SUI) (1928/48) at 1,822 metres (5,980 feet).

Remember, however, that Sochi has two separate sets of sites – the Coastal Cluster, by the Black Sea, and the Mountain Cluster, in the western Caucasus Mountains, near Krasnaya Polyana. Krasnaya Polyana has a base elevation of 560 metres (1,840 feet), with the mountains rising to 2,320 metres (7,610 feet).

So is Sochi the warmest site ever for a Winter Olympics. Basically, yes, but not by all that much, and for those of you who remember the Spring Olympics in Vancouver (so-called by Shaun White), Sochi’s temperature, down by the Black Sea, is about the same.

Year     City                      NOC        Feb Mean Temp (C° / F°)

2014     Sochi                  RUS                     6° / 43°

2010     Vancouver      CAN                     5° / 41°

1992     Albertville       FRA                      5° / 41°

2006     Torino                ITA                        4° / 39°

1924     Chamonix        FRA                      4° / 39°

1968     Grenoble          FRA                      3° / 37°

The coldest sites for Winter Olympics were Lillehammer (NOR) (1994) and Lake Placid, New York (USA) (1932/80) where the average February temperature is about -9° C. or 17° F. So its safe to say Sochi will not be the coolest ever Winter Olympic site.

Other critics of Sochi have said that the site is too small for a modern Winter Olympics, and that too much of it has had to be built from scratch. While it is true that huge amounts of infrastructure has been required to make Sochi an Olympic city, as a host site, its not that small. Here are the populations of Winter Olympic host cities currently, and in the year in which they hosted:

Year     City                       NOC     Pop (2013)    Pop (OlyYr)

1972     Sapporo             JPN       1,918,000        1,150,000

2006     Torino                  ITA            912,000           857,000

1988     Calgary               CAN     1,097,000           650,000

2010     Vancouver        CAN         603,500           603,500

1984     Sarajevo             BIH           438,000           448,000

1952     Oslo                     NOR         629,000           447,000

1998     Nagano              JPN           387,000           356,000

2014     Sochi                   RUS           343,000           343,000

And nothing compares to the two United States’ host cities. Lake Placid, New York had a population of 2,950 in 1932 and 2,490 in 1980, while Squaw Valley, California barely existed in 1960, with a population for that site generously estimated at 300, by David Antonucci, author of a book on the 1960 Winter Olympics (Snowball’s Chance: The Story of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games).

And if you think Sochi needs to build infrastructure when Squaw Valley was selected as host city in June 1955, it didn’t exist. Antonucci thinks only two families actually lived in what was to become Squaw Valley. But it was a different time.

Rumors abound that Sochi is costing $51 billion (US) for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Is that a record? Stay tuned – more to come.

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