Printed on: February 08, 2013

Sochi a point of national pride for Putin's Russia

By Nataliya Vasilyeva
Associated Press

SOCHI, Russia -- One year before Russia hosts its first Winter Olympics, this Black Sea resort is a vast construction site sprawling for nearly 40 kilometers (25 miles) along the coast and 50 kilometers (30 miles) up into the mountains. After arriving at Sochi's new airport, there's no escape from the clang and clatter of the drilling, jackhammering and mixing of cement that drowns out the hum of the sea and the birdsong.

For Russia and its leadership, the 2014 Sochi Games is not just a major sports event but a point of national pride. President Vladimir Putin has made the Olympics his personal project and, determined to use them to showcase a powerful and prosperous Russia, has spared no expense to make sure the games are a success.

On Thursday, Putin visited Sochi to preside over a lavish celebration marking the one-year countdown to the opening ceremony Feb. 7, 2014.

"The project is under his permanent control and we enjoy the full government support," Sochi organizing committee head Dmitry Chernyshenko said. "This really is his games because he recognizes the power of these games, the greatest ever catalyst to accelerate positive change."

The current overall price tag for the games is $51 billion, more than four times as much as Russia estimated when it was awarded the Olympics in 2007. This would make Sochi the most expensive Olympics in history, surpassing the $40 billion that China is believed to have splashed out for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. For Sochi, at least half the money is coming from state coffers, with most of the rest being put forward by state-controlled companies and Russian tycoons.

The costs are high because they include extensive infrastructure development in addition to construction of the Olympic venues, almost all of which had to be built from scratch. Most of the sports venues have already been completed or will be in the next few months, while armies of workers are busy building hotels and additional Olympic facilities, including two of the three athletes' villages and the media center.

Almost every major street and highway is affected by road works, further snarling the traffic that can make a 15-mile ride into town from the airport take more than two hours.

The sheer scale of the construction is staggering, but the head of the local organizing committee is confident that everything will be ready for the games.

"We're building all the infrastructure right on schedule and within the budget," Chernyshenko said.

The 2014 Games, which run through Feb. 23, will feature more than 3,000 athletes competing in seven sports and 15 disciplines for a total of 98 medal events. The sports program includes 12 new events, including women's ski jumping and slopestyle snowboarding and skiing.

This city in southern Russia once seemed an unusual choice for the Winter Games. With its lush subtropical climate, Sochi was previously known only as a summer sea resort where hotels with rude Soviet-style service catered to undemanding tourists from provincial Russia. The snow-capped peaks to the northeast saw little downhill skiing, an elitist and unpopular sport in Soviet times.

But in recent years, the mountains above the city have been transformed into a modern ski resort, with cable cars, cozy chalets and new hotels. Free Wi-Fi is ubiquitous, even at 7,600 feet. Russia hopes the games will put Sochi on the map as a year-round international resort.

"It's (a) once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the country and for the entire region," Chernyshenko said.