Jeff Lee in Russia: Pressure mounts as Sochi builds towards 2014

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Jeff Lee in Russia: Pressure mounts as Sochi builds towards 2014

Message  Vivre Enrussie le Lun 14 Juin 2010 - 8:04

13/06/2010 -

SOCHI, RUSSIA — When Vladimir Putin and backers of the Sochi 2014 Winter Games went to Guatemala City in 2007 to persuade the International Olympic Committee to give them the Olympics, they built a temporary ice arena at a restaurant near the conference hall and flew in members of the Russian Ice Ballet.

Their message was simple: If they could bring ice ballet to Central America, they could certainly transform semi-tropical Sochi — a lush semi-tropical seaside resort known as Russia's Riviera — into a winter wonderland.

It would require the construction of an entire new winter community in the north Caucasus mountains, the building of nearly 300 kilometres of roads, 100 kilometres of rail, 39 tunnels and 24 thermal and hydro power stations.

But in the three years since that decision, Russia has discovered that building a single temporary arena is one matter and creating an entire new region is quite another. For one thing, it seems not everyone wanted to come to the ice-ballet party. As recently as this week, Russian Transportation minister Igor Levitin admitted the pace of work on one new half-built Olympic-related road has been stymied by a single business owner who doesn't want to move.

And at the seaside park where a cluster of six ice venues and a massive media centre will be built, some of the 500 or more homeowners who have had their land expropriated have resisted, saying the compensation, even by Russian standards, is not enough. Some have gone on a hunger strike. Ultimately, both issues will get resolved, but they are frustrating officials charged with keeping an enormously complex program on a tight schedule.

There are also serious security threats to the Games. In Guatemala, Putin pledged the Sochi Olympics would be "safe, enjoyable and memorable." But many, even inside government, are no longer sure of that. Sochi is near the predominantly Muslim Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan, and rebel groups such as Caucasus Emirate continue to fight to create an Islamic caliphate. Last month Alexander Bortnikov, the chief of Russia's federal security bureau, said he was aware of credible Islamist terrorist threats to attack the Sochi Games.

To add to the pressure, there are also growing concerns about the environmental impact of the construction, both on Olympic venues and an ambitious combined road/rail connector being built between Adler, a southern suburb of Sochi, and the mountain venues at Krasnaya Polyana.

In January the United Nations Environment Programme noted that Russian promises to strengthen environmental protections, enlarge the nearby Sochi National Park and set up new protected areas for sensitive wetlands were not being carried out. It also pointed to a general level of distrust between Sochi organizers and Olympstroy, the Russian government agency building the venues, and non-government environmental agencies. It worried about the progress of promises to mitigate and remediate environmental damage to the Mzymta River.

Part of those worries are because of the richly beautiful environment in which the venues are being built. The Caucasus Mountains start here in the north and spread eastwards across Eurasia to the Capian Sea. They breathtakingly puncture the Russian skyline, and are home to many rare animals, birds and plants, as well as fiercely independent people. In a homage to the environment, Russia is reintroducing the Caucasus Leopard to Sochi National Park and has begun an aggressive captive breeding program.

Russia is also, for the first time ever, applying new "green standards" to the construction of the venues and road systems. It is well aware of world concerns that Olympic projects now need to incorporate and be respectful of the environment, according to Dmitry Chernyshenko, the chief executive officer of the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee.

"We are very proud of the strict environmental efforts we are undertaking here. We want this to be a showcase for other countries and Russians also want this," he said.

On the issues of the construction timetable, security and the cost of putting on the Games, he remains equally positive. These are issues to be managed, not to be thwarted by, he said.

For visitors to the valley, it is the changes to the Mzymta that are symbolically the most surprising.

The river roughly translates into "Crazy River". But what some environmentalists say is truly crazy is the massive impact the road/rail project is having on the river system. At dozens of spots along its banks dumptrucks and graders bring in fill, constraining the Myzmta into a tight course confined behind slabs of metal pounded deep into the riverbed. At other spots, pylons for the elevated line are built right into the river.

"Ecologists aren't washing their hands of the issue, but the opportunity to work in constructive cooperation with the authorities has vanished," Igor Chestin, head of the Russian branch of the World Wildlife Fund told Associated Press in February. The WWF cut ties with both Olympstroy and said it was suspending cooperation with the Olympic organizing committee.

Igor Sizov, the editor of Sochi Gazette, said there is a strong debate in the community about what is happening. But he said most people support the project and trust that environmental damage will be mitigated against the benefits of progress.

"The Olympic concept is supported by millions of people. But maybe 1,000 people don't like it," he said, holding up two fingers an inch apart. "The Myzmta was important for water supply in the first half of the century, but that isn't the case now."

The road/rail system, which will also extend to Sochi proper, about 20 kilometres north on the Black Sea coast, is the backbone of a plan to unclog the region's seriously jammed roads. The builders of the Soviet-era infrastructure never contemplated a time when most Russians would own their own cars. Consequently rush hour in "Big Sochi", a strip of four districts from Adler in the south to Tuapse in the north, often extends throughout the day.

But both backers of the plan and some environmentalists say the project may also help to get people out of their cars, thereby reducing pollution.

The work in the mountain venues is equally challenging. This is the place Putin said Russia intended to build its national sport facilities - since all of the facilities during the Soviet era were built in now-independent countries and satellite states. In order to do that, it means transforming a once-sleepy valley into a completely new winter wonderland, chewing into the mountains in a number of places, razing forests and installing miles of cable car systems, roads and other services. The new venues are being built in tandem - in some cases right in the middle - of expansive private hotel projects.

One of the largest is at Rosa Khutor just underneath the Aibga Ridge. It is a joint venture of private investors and the Russian government and will host the alpine, freestyle and snowboard events. A veritable instant town, not unlike Whistler, is being erected on both sides of the Mzymta and will sport a half-dozen or so internationally-flagged hotel chains. Just down the road at the village of Esto-Sadok, the ski jumps will be carved out of the hillside above the river, next to a 2,100-room resort built in three places separated by gondolas.

On the flats at Adler, where the ice venues are being built, the Bolshoi Ice Palace, the main ice hockey arena, is fast rising out of the ground. But other venues are still merely plans on a sheet. Olympstroy went back to the drawing board on several last year after attracting private investors who wanted to make them "dismountable", a Russian euphemism for transporting them later to more suitable communities. Ergo, the temporary curling rink, to be built next to Bolshoi, is a stunted forest of half-finished concrete walls.

Construction on most of the rest of the venues is just starting. The sliding centre was moved after Putin agreed with international environmentalists' concerns that the original site, adjacent to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was inappropriate. It has been moved to the Alpika Mountain Resort, between Rosa Khutor and the ski jumps.

The relocation also helped make the snow venues more compact and may drive down costs a little, an issue Vancouver experienced when it relocated its ski jumps in the Callaghan Valley and tightened the cross-country ski course. In all cases, Chernyshenko says the venues will be finished by 2012.

In all, Sochi needs more than 45,000 hotel rooms. It has perhaps half that, many of them in the aging seaside sanitoriums to which Russians flock in the summer. Of the 25,000 rooms that need to be built, half are in the mountains and the rest will be in the Adler area.

But that demand has also raised the concerns of the IOC because of the substantial demand for trained workers and the consequent need for workforce accommodation.

"The risk points for us are of two orders," said Gilbert Felli, the IOC's executive director of Olympic Games. "The finalization of delivery of all the infrastructure, and that includes for me accommodations. That is where they've got more risk.

"If you build 20,000 rooms, you need about 30,000 people. You need to find them, train them and accommodate them. That is probably now where they will have the biggest task."

All of this begs the question about how much this project is costing. But not unlike what the organizers of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics faced, this involves a complicated answer. Putin told the IOC in Guatemala it was part of a $12 billion US redevelopment plan. More recently, government ministers have said the overall investment is closer to 950 billion rubles or about $30 billion. But Sochi 2014 officials, nervous about the potential public backlash, say the actual Olympic project is much more modest.

Chernyshenko said this week that his venue construction budget is actually 185 billion rubles or about $6 billion, with about half of that coming from private investors. Officials with Olympstroy say the road/rail system being built by Russian Railways is an additional 250 billion rubles, or about $8.5 billion. Rosa Khutor's hotel projects are costing billions more. It is unclear how much hotel development in the region is costing, but as an example last month Olympstroy said Telman Ismailov, a Russian oligarch, would invest $800 million in Sochi, building 4,000 rooms in two luxury hotels.

One thing for sure is that Russia and the Sochi Organizing Committee are trying to spread the costs to private investments, even though some of those include joint ventures with various governments.

Amid all of this, security remains the most fluid issue. Recently security forces said they disrupted potential threats to Sochi 2014 with the arrest of Ali Taziyev, the military commander of Caucasus Emirate, the group believed responsible for two recent terrorist bombings on the Moscow Metro.

Felli said the IOC tries not to be worried about the threats. "First of all, I would say as always, the Olympic Games can be a target anywhere," he said. Sochi has clamped down even during construction, screening every truck that goes into and out of the Adler Olympic Park. He said the IOC believes Russia has an intelligence handle on threats to the Games.

Last week Putin told French journalists in an interview at his Sochi villa that Russia would put "maximum effort" into securing the Games.

"The situation is restive, and has been for a long time in the north Caucusus," he said. "But, thank God, not in the Sochi region."

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