London 2012 and Sochi 2014 — Building a Lasting Legacy for Russia-U.K. Relations

Chris Gilbert
Russia Director
Russo-British Chamber of Commerce

I still remember that early July day in 2005 when I heard that my hometown of London had won the bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. In no particular order, my feelings were of pride, surprise — Paris had been the hot favorite, but in the event London went through on a margin of just four votes — and, I’ll admit it, a slight and very British unease that we had over-committed ourselves, and that self-congratulation would rapidly turn to recrimination as London faced up to the mammoth task of regenerating hundreds of hectares of its eastern reaches, an area that had been used for decades as a dumping ground for both refuse and people.

Almost exactly two years later, Sochi pulled off an identical feat in its bid to host the 2014 winter games, beating South Korea’s Pyeongchang by the same four-vote margin, and I have to say that my feelings were similar: “Brilliant! Fantastic! How the hell...” On the face of it, the tasks ahead for the two host cities are very different: London is substantially revamping a large part of its territory and extending its infrastructure network to cope, while Sochi is having to do a great deal of the work on virgin land.

Starting from scratch can be risky and expensive: if you want an example, on current estimates, the building of the rail link from Adler airport to Krasnaya Polyana, where the parts of Sochi 2014 that need to have a mountain handy will take place, will cost £5.5 billion ($8.24 billion) — in other words, about half of the total proposed spending on London 2012. But London also has its share of problems: Olympic Games are expensive things (just ask Beijing), and the U.K. is committed to some serious capital expenditure against the background of the biggest national budget deficit we have seen since World War II.

I could go on about the problems, but for a start, space won’t permit, and second, it is much healthier for both countries to concentrate on the opportunities offered by hosting events of this kind. After all, it’s the reason why they bid in the first place; and aren’t sporting events supposed to be all about health? Barcelona showed us 18 years ago how the Olympics can have a lasting positive effect, since Spain’s second city didn’t even have a beach before the International Olympic Committee came to town, and the oh-so-popular word “legacy” is something that is clearly being thought about by both Russian and U.K. organizers. The Olympics, of course, will always leave their mark, but what is unique on this occasion is that, if Russia and the U.K. can pool their expertise and share their ideas — perhaps even learn from each other’s mistakes — both countries stand to benefit.

I was there at the 2009 St. Petersburg Economic Forum when the U.K. Minister for Trade and Investment, Lord Davies of Abersoch, signed a Host2Host partnership agreement with the Russian Regional Development Minister, Viktor Basargin. Only last month, Sir Andrew Cahn, Chief Executive of U.K. Trade and Investment, visited Moscow and St. Petersburg and had similarly positive meetings with senior Russian officials who gave him assurances that U.K. expertise would be welcomed in Sochi with open arms.

I am glad to say that this political goodwill is slowly translating into commercial cooperation — and high time too, because we are both working against the clock. It has to be said that some international companies have felt frustrated at their lack of progress with getting involved in Sochi, and it is a frustration that the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce shares. I have heard it said on several occasions that outside contractors and consultants will only be “let in” when the main Russian players realize that they will have problems delivering on their promises, but whether this is true or not, the key thing for both sides is to maintain positive dialogue and contact.

Maintaining dialogue and contact has been the Chamber’s principal mission throughout its 94 year history, in good times and bad, and we will continue to promote the interests of our Russian and U.K. member companies who can bring value to both London 2012 and Sochi 2014. In October, we will devote a panel session of the RBCC RussiaTALK investment forum to the opportunities offered by the Olympics for Russia and the U.K. to build on their already solid business relationship. One thing is abundantly clear — whatever the issues faced by both cities as they gear themselves up for one of the greatest shows on earth, if we can work together, we can both be winners.