Who would hold the Winter Olympics in a summer resort? Vladimir Putin is who. In the triumph of what can only be called a preposterous idea, three short weeks from now the Russian president will draw the world’s attention to a grand legacy project of his own fantastic design. Nearly seven years ago, Putin personally pitched the International Olympic Committee to choose Sochi for these winter games. Sochi? Picture the Jersey Shore in the 1950s—plus palm trees and minus, until recently, the widespread luxury of indoor plumbing in the huts that locals rent to beachgoers. The place sits on the same latitude as the French Riviera, and until Putin fell in love with it, was best known for the packs of Soviets who used to sun themselves on the rocky shore of the Black Sea.
Sochi today is Putin’s personal pride, a project of such colossal authoritarian branding that it’s hard to think of a more recent example of a political leader so closely involved in such a grandiose building spree. For these past seven feverish years, the city has been Europe’s largest construction site—only recently declared by the Kremlin ready to host the Games that start on Feb. 7. Putin himself is in Sochi now, where he is personally reviewing final preparations, granting interviews and generally taking a tsar-like approach to inspecting what his billions have bought. And billions it has been: The overall price tag for the Games has now reached somewhere between $50 billion and $55 billion, a figure that makes this not only the most expensive Olympics in history, but also pricier than all previous Winter Olympiads put together.