SOCHI, Russia - The sheer cost, size and scale of the Sochi Olympics has outstripped anything done before. The question for future Winter Games is clear: Can anyone — should anyone — try to top that?
Sochi has showcased President Vladimir Putin's grand project, using the Olympics to reshape the entire Black Sea resort region, with brand new facilities and infrastructure built from scratch.
The huge financial investment, massive security apparatus and litany of logistical issues has thrown up major challenges to potential future Winter Olympic host cities.
Can they afford it? Will the public support it? Should the games keep going to emerging and developing countries or return to more traditional winter sports nations? Will the weather be cold enough?
Under new President Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee is weighing changes to the bidding process that would cut down on the costs for applicant and host cities.
"The idea that perhaps a more traditional country would produce a smaller scale games with a different legacy, it's entirely possible," IOC spokesman Mark Adams says.
The fact is, potential host cities have been spooked by the $51 billion price tag associated with Sochi. Most of that cash isn't for the games themselves; it's for roads, railways, hotels and other long-term regeneration projects.
Still, the international mood has shifted. Proposed bids for the 2022 Winter Olympics from Munich and St. Moritz-Davos were rejected last year by voters in Germany and Switzerland because of financial and environmental concerns. Stockholm recently pulled out of the 2022 race after Swedish politicians said the costs were too high.
"A lot of cities have found this a little scary, that so much money has to be invested," senior Norwegian IOC member Gerhard Heiberg told The Associated Press. "People in western Europe say this is too much for us, too much investment, too difficult to run. We need to get more cities interested. It's a question of cost — as little as possible."
THINKING ABOUT FAIRNESS
The next Winter Games will be held in 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Like Sochi, it's a new destination, the first Winter Olympics in Korea, and a city with which many in the world are unfamiliar. Unlike Sochi, Pyeongchang already has many existing facilities in place. The infrastructure budget is a modest $7 billion.
"We need to always give a chance to developing winter sports nations to develop what they need to do," Adams says. "We can't always just go to countries where they've got everything already. That wouldn't help to spread the games and it wouldn't be fair, either."
Next to be decided is the site of the 2022 Games. A low-key bidding campaign has been waged behind the scenes in Sochi among the five candidate cities: Almaty, Kazakhstan; Beijing; Krakow, Poland; Lviv, Ukraine; and Oslo, Norway.
The IOC executive board will cut the field to a short list of finalists in early July. The full IOC will select the winner on July 31, 2015, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Beijing, which hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, would seem a longshot after the IOC awarded two consecutive games to Asia — Pyeongchang for 2018 and Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Games.
It would seem impossible for Lviv to be able to overcome the political crisis and unrest in Ukraine, especially after the clashes that claimed at least 25 lives in Kiev on Tuesday. Krakow is an interesting option at the heart of Europe, but its plans for holding some ski events across the border in Slovakia pose tricky logistical issues.
That could leave Oslo and Almaty as the top contenders.
Oslo hosted the 1952 Winter Olympics, and the Norwegian town of Lillehammer staged the 1994 Games.
Oslo would seem to fit the mold perfectly. It is a secure choice with a winter sports tradition, existing facilities and an oil-rich economy to boot. Norway's bid also offers the legacy of Lillehammer, considered one of the best Winter Games ever, acclaimed for its colorful and passionate crowds.
Lillehammer, which will stage the 2016 Winter Youth Games, would host Alpine events in 2022. Lillehammer is about 180 kilometers (110 miles) north of Oslo.
"It will be a huge party," says Geir Sivertzen, a Norwegian fan wearing a Viking helmet and carrying a Norwegian flag in Sochi's mountain venue of Krasnaya Polyana. "The streets and arenas will be boiling. A colorful Olympics, I think we can promise."
However, the latest polls in Norway show that more than 50 percent oppose the bid, and the government still hasn't approved the required financial guarantees. Those factors leave the future of Oslo's bid up in the air.
Almaty could be the one to watch.
A city of 1.5 million people in a mountainous region of Central Asia, Almaty is the commercial capital of the oil-rich former Soviet republic ruled by President Nursultan Nazarbayev since 1989.
Almaty also bid for the 2014 Games but failed to make the final short list. The city, which hosted the 2011 Asian Winter Games and will hold
the Winter Universiade in 2017, says 90 percent of the competition venues already in place — including a new ski jump complex near the city center.
"We will use existing infrastructure," Andrey Kryukov, an executive board member of the Kazakhstan national Olympic Committee, said Thursday. "It will cost many, many times less than Sochi."
The Sochi project of building everything for the Olympics out of nothing seems to be a one-shot deal.
"We'll probably never, ever go to a place where everything is new," Canadian member Dick Pound says. "All other places tend to have some facilities."
Lurking in the background is the impact of climate change, an issue given new urgency by the balmy weather that prevailed through much of the Sochi Games. Temperatures have reached 17 C (63 F), causing concern for snow conditions.
"It is a factor, no question about it," Heiberg says. "We in the IOC must also look at the possibility: Will there be snow in this area or will there not? We need to go where we feel we are sure the snow will be present."
Scientists say rising temperatures could put the Winter Games at risk in the not-too-distant future.
"As the century unfolds, northern nations will have less and less certainty that they will have enough snow to host a Winter Olympics," says Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist from the University of Victoria in Canada.
Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer says it's likely enough snow will remain in some places through the rest of the 21st century to hold some Olympic competition.
"But the venues might be radically different," he says — "a lot less accessible and less amenable to host the kind of huge, circus-like event we hold today."