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Volume 20 No. 41
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Questions for Sochi

When the International Olympic Committee’s coordination committee visited Sochi last fall, they were impressed. Venues were largely completed and a high-speed train to the mountains was on schedule. Organizers seemed prepared to host a successful Winter Games. But the construction success on the ground doesn’t mean there aren’t questions that Sochi, the IOC, NBC and others will need to address between now and the opening ceremony next year. Here are a few:

Will the NHL show up?

Alexander Ovechkin
Photo by: Getty Images

Hockey is to the Winter Games what track is to the Summer Games. It’s the anchor sport and marquee attraction during the second week of the Olympics. In Sochi, hockey has the potential to be as popular as it was in Vancouver. Hospitality and Olympic travel company executives say hockey tickets are in high demand. Alexander Ovechkin is already being featured in Coca-Cola advertising. And hockey-mad Scandinavians are expected to travel en mass to Sochi.

But the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation could kill it all. The league and players didn’t reach an agreement regarding the Olympics in their collective-bargaining agreement. It will be up to the NHL and IIHF to make sure that happens.

Will Olympic ratings slump?
A mix of favorable time zones and high-profile host cities delivered ratings gold for NBC in Beijing, Vancouver and London, but Sochi will test that streak.

The city presents a host of challenges for NBC. It’s unknown. It’s closer to Istanbul than Moscow. It’s in a country, Russia, that still carries Cold War connotations for many Americans. And its time zone is nine hours away from the East Coast.

The last time NBC carried a Winter Games that far away was Turin, Italy, and ratings were awful. The network averaged a 12.2 Nielsen rating in prime time, down 36 percent from the 2002 Salt Lake City Games and 25 percent from the 1998 Nagano Games. To avoid a repeat of that, NBC will need to find the right mix of athlete stories and travel tales to engage U.S. viewers.

Will security be too tight?
Photo by: Getty Images

The Caucasus region surrounding Sochi is rife with conflict. There are Muslim militants, separatist groups and Chechen rebels, making this Winter Games more susceptible to a terrorist attack than any in recent history.

The Russian government says the Games will be safe, but Olympic marketers are concerned that the security presence could be so heightened that it dampens the festivities. They envision heavily armed military and long security lines. It will be up to the government to balance keeping spectators safe with making sure they still have a good experience.

Will the venues be used again?
Every venue in Sochi — from the ice hockey arena to the mountain resort — is being built from scratch. The construction costs total more than $6.5 billion. It’s a huge investment designed to turn a longtime summer destination into a winter resort.

But will people return? Will the permanent venues be used? Or will they become padlocked and largely abandoned like the Bird’s Nest in China?

Russian leaders already are expressing concerns. The head of the audit chamber estimated the cost of maintaining the facilities at $2 billion annually and said it was “too expensive.”

What stars will emerge?
Lindsey Vonn
Photo by: Getty Images

Attracting U.S. viewers for the last few Olympics has come easy for NBC because many of the biggest stars have returned and new talent has stepped up to win. Most recently, swimmer Michael Phelps and the U.S. gymnastics team delivered during the 2012 Summer Games.

The 2014 Sochi Games have the potential to offer the same mix. Lindsey Vonn and her gold-medal-winning teammate Julia Mancuso return to the slopes, and 17-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin, who picked up her first World Cup win last month, will look to join them on the podium. Shaun White will return in the halfpipe, freeskiers like Simon Dumont and Tom Wallisch will step onto the Olympic stage for the first time, and figure skater Ashley Wagner will look to reclaim a women’s gold medal for the U.S.

Will hotels, restaurants and shops be prepared to welcome the world?
Sochi’s Radisson Lazurnaya hotel
Photo by: Getty Images

Like every venue in Sochi, most of the hotels in the area are being built to host the Games. Hospitality experts said that means they will be far better than the hotels in Turin in 2006, and in many cases better than the hotels in Vancouver in 2010. But it isn’t the hotels that concern them. It’s the service.

Sochi’s food and hospitality industry is unaccustomed to hosting international guests. Few are multilingual, and many are unaccustomed to the expectations of American and European travelers.

To overcome that, several of the new hotels are partnering with international chains such as Radisson and Swissotel in hopes that they can tap into the larger chains’ training programs and expertise. But sports hospitality providers are concerned that may not be enough.