The Russian city of Sochi, on the Black Sea, is prepping for the 2014 Winter Olympics – and so far it has already become the most expensive games in Olympic history. NBC's Jim Maceda reports.
SOCHI, Russia -- Let's get one thing straight: The town that will host the 2014 Winter Olympics is a summer resort.
At 1 p.m. on Thursday -- one year to the day from the Opening Ceremony -- the temperature was 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Miami-style high-rise condos dot rich green groves of palm and cypress trees. This is Sochi, better known as the "Black Sea Pearl."
That's a testament to two things: The kind of clout Russian President Valdimir Putin has, at least with those eminent International Olympic Committee members; and the laser-like determination he's shown to make his dream come true -- to transform Sochi from a long-in-the-tooth former Soviet spa resort into an all-season, international sports playground.
Putin even flew to the 2007 IOC summit in Guatemala to explain – amazingly, in both English and French, languages he doesn't actually speak – what Sochi had to offer.
Not just vast expanses of balmy beaches, but only 30 miles to the east, majestic, untapped mountain ranges called The Caucasus.
Mikhail Klimentyev / Presidential Press Service - Ria Novosti via AFP - Getty Images, file
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with regional Governor Alexander Tkachev during a visit to a mountain resort near 2014 Olympic host Sochi this week.
And to top it off, he offered to put up $12 billion to build his Olympic Wonderland – including a high-speed train system that would get thousands of spectators from the ice palaces below to the alpine resorts above in just 25 minutes. Blue sea meets snow-white mountains. Done deal.
But it soon became apparent that Putin's dream wasn't just about hosting the Olympic Games. He also wanted to showcase a new, modern Russia – no matter how questionable that image may be - led by a man who demanded the world's attention.
"He needed some bold proof that he can do something very important for Russia," said Fyodor Lukyanov, managing editor of Russia in Global Affairs. "The Olympic Games in this regard is a good opportunity to turn attention away from the lack of development in Russia to a big international success.''
As Russia prepares to welcome guests from around the world for the Winter Olympics next year, NBC's Ben Fogle takes an insider's look at the progress of Sochi's Olympic Park and gets the scoop on a few athletes to look out for next year.
The dream began to look like the genie out of the bottle. Even $12 billion – more than twice the total cost of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games – did not even cover the bills for the two Olympic parks, the skate and ski venues, and the road and rail lines linking the two.
Remember, Sochi had only one main road and no winter resort. About 85 percent of Putin's dream needed to be built from scratch.
One year from the start of the Games, the total cost has hit $51 billion, a new Olympic record. Half of that total is coming from the state's coffers, and the rest from Putin's rich oligarch friends.
Gazprom, the state-owned corporation Putin runs like a CEO, has even built many of the ski venues. One can see Gazprom's logo everywhere in the Olympic space in Sochi.
Billboards for Putin's other "pillar," the state-owned oil giant Rosneft, are spread around the Olympic parks and a luxurious mountain resort built entirely by Interros, the holding company owned by Putin's close oligarch friend, Vladimir Potanin.
Ivan Sekretarev / Pool via Reuters
Russia's President Vladimir Putin, second left, listens to Interros president Vladimir Potanin, left, during a tour of Olympic sites near Sochi on Wednesday.
Both Putin and the Sochi 2014 corporate sponsors have all denied enriching themselves by way of the games. Putin's eloquent press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, says there's nothing wrong with using corporate capitalism – and the excuse of the Olympic Games – to better the lives of all Russians.
"We have a golden opportunity to ensure that we have a boost for the whole development of the economy, not only the regional economy but the economy of the whole country," he said.
But how many ordinary Russians will benefit from this $50 billion spectacle?
People like Artyom and Mikael – both retired Russian middle-class neighbors – certainly haven't. They live in Mirni, a village cradled in the shadow of the new Olympic Stadium.
With a year to go until the start of the Sochi Winter Olympics, spokesman for Russia's President Vladimir Putin acknowledges that "there are issues" with preparations, but adds that the Games will be an overriding success. NBC News' Jim Maceda reports.
A couple of years ago the two bought into the "dream" and started to build an extension to Artyom's house, but ran out of funds, their pensions barely covering their food bills.
They have no gas, no plumbing, and suffer regular power outages, which cut off their heating. Outside, the road is permanently flooded and cratered, and their small Russian car can't take the ride to the market.
Almost everyone in Mirni – population 1500 - lives like this, but the world, they say, won't see what the real Russian life is like, as it will be hidden by Olympic barricades and banners.
"There's no place here to feel like a human," said Mikael, who, like Artyom, declined to give his last name. "Gazprom has built everything here for their needs but there's no place for simple people. Their security teams cast people away like barking dogs."
There's little doubt that "Putin's Dream" will come true. Sochi 2014 has all the ingredients to be a grand success.
Putin is already starting to stockpile vast amounts of snow for next winter, just in case. And he's bought an arsenal of snow guns, primed and ready to fire.
Join NBC News' Dmitry Solovyov and Alexei Gordienko as they make the 1,000-mile journey from Moscow to 2014 Olympic host Sochi.
But terrorism is also a real threat here. With the troubled Caucasus republics nearby - like Chechnya, Dagestan and Abkhazia - it's likely that many spectators will actually be armed, plainclothes cops.
It would appear that Putin has thought of everything – including installing massive gas pipelines to fuel even more massive power stations, all brand new – to produce the world's best Olympic Games and return Russia to the glory of the days when Joseph Stalin spent his summers in his Sochi dacha, watching American cowboy movies.
But will these "Putin Games" boost the current Russian strongman's tarnished image in the West and beyond?
Lukyanov – and many other Russian analysts – don't think so.
"He is not seen as a guy who is able to deliver a change, to deliver development, and I don't believe that the Olympic Games will be able to change Russia's image worldwide as a big, important but basically stagnating country.''
Let the Games - and the dream – begin.
Jim Maceda is an NBC News foreign correspondent based in London, currently on assignment in Sochi. He's covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for the past three decades.
Mikhail Mordasov / AFP - Getty Images
The Winter Olympics arrive in Sochi on Feb. 7, 2014. A look at how the Russian city is shaping up for its moment in the spotlight.