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Five fun facts about Sochi

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It’s never too early to look waaaaay ahead toward the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia (also, heads up: the 2014 Winter Olympics are in Sochi, Russia, and only 17 months away). Here are five fun facts you probably didn’t know about the next host city.

1. Geography!
Sochi lies on the Eastern edge of the Black Sea, putting it in the same geopolitical neighborhood as Ukraine, Turkey and – get excited – Georgia (the country). Tensions between Russia and its former Soviet satellite tend to boil over every so often, so here’s hoping that doesn’t happen around the Olympics — or ever again, for that matter.

2. Celebrity!
Despite the U.S. history lesson given to her by Serena Williams in London 2012’s gold medal match, Maria Sharapova remains one of the elite players in the women’s game right now – and the 25-year-old began her career at a tennis academy in Sochi.

3. Politics!
The Sochi Games will be the second time Russia has hosted the Olympics, but the first time (fingers crossed) that the U.S. has attended an Olympics in Russia – Team USA boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics because back then America and the Soviets weren’t exactly best buds.

4. Oppression! Relaxation!
Sochi has been a resort town since its coastline was settled in the late 1800s, and even the grimmest days of Communism didn’t change that – former Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin loved it so much that he is said to have had a vacation home there. Today over two million visitors come to Sochi each year.

5. Climate!
With its resort-like atmosphere, it’s charming summer weather (the summers are supposedly gorgeous, though it’s the town’s proximity to the Caucasus Mountains that helped win it the 2014 Games), and the fact that it’s a lot closer to the Mediterranean than one might imagine, Sochi is often referred to as the ‘Russian Riviera.’ Be prepared to hear that moniker tossed around a lot next winter.

Aaron Stern is a regular contributor to OlympicTalk. Feel free to send all hate-Tweets here.

Russian Olympic medalists gifts include racehorse

Abdulrashid Sadulaev
AP
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MOSCOW (AP) — Luxury cars, apartments, even a racehorse — being an Olympic medalist in Russia can come with great material rewards but also controversy.

Under President Vladimir Putin, it’s become a tradition for Russia’s Olympic heroes to be showered with large cash sums and sometimes unwanted gifts.

On Friday, less than 24 hours after dozens of medalists were presented with BMW cars at the Kremlin by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, an advertisement appeared online offering one of them for sale, with photographs showing the car still covered in stickers celebrating Russia’s medal haul in Rio.

The advertisement offering the BMW X6 for 4.67 million rubles ($72,000) was anonymous and quickly withdrawn. It couldn’t be independently verified by The Associated Press, though Russian agency R-Sport claimed the seller was a Russian medalist who thought the car was too big and unwieldy.

Figure skater Maxim Trankov, who received a Mercedes-Benz SUV for his gold medal in 2014, said few Olympians could afford to own such cars.

“Has no one thought that these gift cars are not only liable for the tax on luxury items, but also aren’t cheap to run and earnings can’t cover it?” he wrote on Twitter. “I’d sell mine too if it came to it … Or does everyone think all sports pay as well as soccer, hockey or tennis?”

Gymnast Seda Tutkhalyan said she wouldn’t be able to drive her new BMW because at 17 years of age she was too young to have a license.

While online commenters mostly supported an athlete’s right to sell expensive Olympic gifts, many were critical of the government for a display of conspicuous consumption at the Kremlin at a time when Russia’s pension and healthcare systems are under financial strain.

It’s not fully clear how much the prizes have cost the Russian government.

State TV channel Rossiya 24 reported that the fleet of BMWs was provided by the Olympians’ Support Fund, which is backed by a group of Russia’s richest men, but that the accompanying cash prizes of tens of thousands of dollars per medalist came in part from the federal budget.

More awards are on offer from regional governments, many of which made public displays of generosity despite financial troubles of their own.

The Caucasus region of North Ossetia last month promised a free apartment for any medalists from the area, though it isn’t clear if this has happened yet.

In another grand gesture, the head of the restive Dagestan region gave Olympic wrestling champion Abdulrashid Sadulaev 6 million rubles ($93,000) in cash and a racehorse at a lavish welcoming ceremony featured on local TV.

Still, all may not be well for Sadulaev, who’s nicknamed the “Russian Tank” for his habit of crushing opponents on the wrestling mat. He’s already facing an allegation from a Moscow radio presenter of reckless driving in his eye-catching BMW.

MORE: Putin slams Russia’s Paralympic ban

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic venue progress video

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The next Olympics, the Pyeongchang Winter Games, are in 530 days.

Organizers of the first Winter Olympics in South Korea published a time-lapse video of venue construction on Thursday.

The video shows updates for the main coastal Olympic Park, including short- and long-track speed skating, figure skating and hockey arenas, the sliding center in the mountains and the Olympic Plaza, which will house the Olympic Stadium for Opening and Closing Ceremonies.

As NBC News reported, one concern is a potential lack of natural snow, which 2010 and 2014 Winter Games organizers had to deal with as well. Man-made snow is always a safety-net option.

MORE: Pyeongchang 2018 mascots unveiled