SOCHI, Russia — A year before the world’s top ski racers are due to rocket down the Rosa Khutor alpine track here in the Caucasus Mountains, a sharp debate is under way among senior Russian officials over how to keep time at next year’s Winter Olympics — not the time on the race clocks, but the actual time of day.
The crux of the matter is how many hours ahead Russia will be — two or three — compared with most of Europe when Sochi holds the 2014 Winter Olympics. While the difference may seem slight, at stake are broadcast rights worth billions of dollars and the added viewership and profitability of showing the Games in prime time.
Also hanging in the balance appears to be the legacy of former President Dmitry Medvedev, now prime minister, who decided in 2011 that Russia should abandon daylight saving time, widening the gap with Europe for six months of the year.
Medvedev has watched many of his liberal-leaning policy changes be undone since his mentor, Vladimir Putin, returned to the presidency last year.
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And Medvedev seems to view the time change as an important decision he wants to preserve.
The topic is so delicate that officials of the International Olympic Committee recently denied asking Putin to revert to daylight saving time, and said they had asked only for Russia’s Olympics planning team to consider the issue.
And when reports emerged last week that Putin had cut a deal with International Olympic Committee officials to resume daylight saving time next year, Medvedev spoke out publicly and with uncharacteristic force.
“The government finds a new correction of time in the current period unadvisable,” Medvedev told government ministers at a Cabinet meeting.
He urged that the government consult medical doctors and other experts and to measure public opinion before making another change.
The outcome has real-life consequences for 140 million Russian citizens, who already grapple with the challenges of being spread across nine time zones.
In Moscow, leaving the clocks unchanged means that, for much of the winter, people wake up in the dark, arrive at school and work in the dark and return home in the dark.
And for anyone working in the financial sector, it means an additional hour’s difference with London and New York — lengthening the workday.
“In Moscow it’s unbearable,” said a senior Russian official who asked not to be identified while sharing an opinion. “It’s really unbearable. You simply lose your living power, because you don’t see sun. You don’t see light.”
Russia has always taken an idiosyncratic approach to time.
Official railroad schedules are printed only in Moscow time, and arrivals and departures are similarly shown that way on electronic billboards in every station — even in cities like Vladivostok, seven time zones away in the Far East.
Putin has not publicly stated a position on the time issue, though the decision is his to make.
On Thursday, he was in Sochi with officials from the International Olympic Committee, presiding over a celebration to start the one-year countdown to the Games.
Also Thursday, new details emerged of Putin’s fury over construction delays and cost overruns for a ski jump that is part of the Olympics mountain cluster.
The cost had soared from a projected $400 million to about $2.4 billion.
In a video of Putin touring the site Wednesday, he appeared incredulous, repeating aloud the amount of the projected cost overrun.
“Well done,” he said sarcastically.