Q&A: Sochi’s Olympics Chief on the 2014 Winter Games

It's still balmy in London, but Dmitry Chernyshenko, the president and chief executive of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, has ice and snow on his mind. Here he talks to TIME about the preparations for the Sochi Games.

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Sochi 2014

Dmitry Chernyshenko, chief executive of Sochi 2014, takes part in the last leg of the torch relay for the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria on Dec. 15, 2011.

It’s still balmy in London, but Dmitry Chernyshenko has ice and snow on his mind. Chernyshenko, the president and chief executive of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, has been in London observing the Olympic and Paralympic Games in the stands and behind-the-scenes, hoping to glean insight on everything from security to logistics. He recently spoke with TIME about Sochi’s Olympic preparations.

Why did Sochi bid for the Olympic Games?

Everybody recognizes that the modern Olympic Games are the most recognized and successful non-commercial brand in the world. It’s also the greatest catalyst to accelerate positive change and development. It’s like a miracle button. It speeds up processes that would [otherwise] take decades. With the Olympics deadlines are certain and commitments are strong. It’s like buying happy tickets to the future. We’re creating a new city in Sochi for about 100,000 inhabitants in just years. It’s incredible.

Are you also helping to burnish Russia’s international image?

Of course. [The Olympics] is a showcase. It’s a display of the new, modern Russia. We are developing awareness that Russia has changed a lot, and that we are democratic, we are friendly, we are transparent, and we are welcoming the world to Sochi in 2014.

You’re a Sochi native. What do locals think about hosting the Games?

They’re very patient. It may be the biggest construction site in the world right now. We now have more than 55,000 workers working 24/7, so of course it’s very noisy for the local inhabitants. But they see the results. They see the new construction, new roads, new hotels, and they respect the situation. Very soon we will do some fine-tuning, roll out the grass and receive the world, and they will enjoy one of the most beautiful cities in our country.

Around 70% of all athletes will live within a five-minute walk of their venues in Sochi. How did you manage that?

We had a natural advantage when we were bidding for the Games: we were building everything from scratch, like a painter using a blank canvas to paint a masterpiece.

Before construction started, what was the area like that now houses the Olympic Park?

It was just a wasteland—an empty field. We brought in experts from all around the world—and some of them were in charge of designing the Olympic Park in London—to create the dream project, where the environment would be convenient for the needs of the Olympic Games. The airport is perfectly located just 7km (4.3 miles) from the Olympic Park. It’s closer than from the downtown of London to its Olympic Park.

What about the Olympic Stadium?

We are constructing a purpose-built central stadium that will have some special technical features that will allow us to impress the world. I will wait for a while to reveal that, but we will use the natural environment of course. The stadium is right on the shore of the Black Sea, and the mountains are nearby. The climate is very mild—nobody will be frozen in the stadium. Hopefully it will be about 10 degrees Celsius [50 degrees Fahrenheit].

What will happen to all these new venues after the Games?

We’re not creating white elephants. Some of the venues will be dismantled and then moved to other regions of Russia. Others will be converted for different purposes. For example, we don’t need such a huge amount of indoor ice in one place, obviously, and the figure skating palace has a capacity of 12,000. It will be converted into a velodrome, while the speed skating center will be converted into a shopping mall and convention center. This is a very well thought out, solid legacy plan for the region. Sochi will be like Cannes and Davos put together.

Do you hope this will boost tourism in the long run?

We are building 21,000 new hotel rooms, operated by an international chain that will serve our clients for the Games. But after the Games it will be a great inventory for guests. There is a nice climate with palm trees. You can ski and swim in less than half an hour. We have a railway delivering up to 20,000 passengers an hour, so it’s an unbeatable combination to create a destination for festivals, conferences, conventions, exhibitions and, of course, sport competitions, because it will be both a winter and a summer sport destination. We can even compete for the next Summer Games!

What about the intangible legacy of the Games?

It’s a shame, frankly, that before Russia started its Olympic journey in 2007, when we won the race to host the Games, that a culture of volunteerism didn’t exist in our culture. But we have opened volunteer centers all across Russia. It’s created a huge boost for the volunteer movement even prior to the Games. We need just 25,000 volunteers but we’ve already had about 100,000 people who’ve already passed through the process of filling out the application, so we have to select the cream of the cream, the most talented, the most dedicated, who deserve to represent the new face of new, modern Russia in 2014.

Is there a specific lesson you’ve learned from the various Olympic Games you’ve attended that is particularly important?

Yes. You might be perfect at organizing and handling the event, but without a national team on the podium, the Games will hardly be perceived as successful.

Doesn’t Russia usually do well at the Olympics?

Not in the Winter Olympics. That’s a big challenge. We lost in Vancouver dramatically. We were in ninth position on the medals table. Ministers for sport and the National Olympic Committee are doing their utmost to create the dream team, which will conquer the podium.

One highlight of London 2012 was the 8,000-mile torch relay around Britain. Russia is a lot bigger than the U.K. Will the flame travel across the entire country?

We’re breaking the record, and our domestic torch relay will be the longest in the history of the modern Olympic Games. It will cover all nine time zones in 123 days. It will be the biggest not just in terms of distance, but also in terms of importance. It will unite the nation and help us discover Russia for ourselves because, frankly, since the Soviet Union collapsed, we don’t know a lot about our own regions. It will be broadcast live to demonstrate the modern achievements of the regions.