Black Sea resort to host 2014 Winter Olympics

Even in winter the Russian town of Sochi welcomes visitors with its blossoming gardens and tropical palms.

Even in winter the Russian town of Sochi welcomes visitors with its blossoming gardens and tropical palms.

The Black Sea resort has been popular among tourists for many decades, with its long beaches and burning sun.

But in 2014 Sochi will have to show a different face to the world.

Guests at the next Winter Olympic Games will expect snow and ice and the Russian authorities will make sure they have it.

In winter Sochi looks dull and quiet. Soviet-era hotels are half-empty and the majority of holidaymakers are elderly people.

Russians who enjoy skiing come to a small winter resort 50 kilometres away in the nearby Caucasus mountains.

But things will have to change to make Sochi the perfect venue of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Budget growth

Russia’s Olympic bid was a record in itself. The country has promised to spend more than $11bn (£7.4bn) on its preparation for the Games.

Only 20% of that money is for sports venues and staging the events, while the remainder is to develop Sochi’s infrastructure.

Local mayor Anatoly Pakhomov says Sochi would never get that amount of investment without the Olympics.

“In three years we will do as much as we would normally do in a century,” he says.

There is no surprise that Sochi today looks like a big construction site.

New roads and junctions are being built and before 2014 the town will get a new water supply system, power stations and a cargo port.

The Olympics are life-changing but not everyone thinks the change is for the better.

Hundreds of houses have been destroyed and people relocated to make way for the new Olympic park.

Popular beaches have been converted into a cargo port and people who owned private hotels on the seashore have lost their livelihoods.

Furthermore, construction sites distract tourists and that has resulted in lower revenue for local businesses.

The most expensive piece of infrastructure is a new high-speed railway that will bring tourists to the future Olympic park in the lowlands and to the Olympic slope in the mountains.

The road will have more than 20km of tunnels and bridges and will cost $7.5bn.

That sum is not included into the Olympic budget – the government will pay for it because it says the road is crucial for Sochi’s future development.

Ice hockey without ice

Surprisingly enough, Sochi does not currently have an ice rink for hockey or figure skating.

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Sochi Dolphins, the only junior hockey team, has no choice but to train in a small gym which would be more suitable for indoor soccer.

Locals were never fond of winter sports, says the coach Andrey Zhartovskiy.

For him and his young players, a new ice hockey arena just 40km from the town centre sounds like a dream come true.

But even Mr Zhartovskiy seems uncertain about the vast Olympic construction.

“Its a paradox,” he says. “All previous Olympics were held somewhere which already had at least some existing venues, whereas Sochi has only one summer stadium and nothing else.”

Sea and snow resorts

The ambitious plan by Russian officials is to make Sochi an international ski resort.

After the Olympics it is supposed to attract tourists not only from Russia, but from around the world.

Future Olympic pistes are being constructed and the first international competitions should be held next year.

A year ago the ski area was covered in forest, while the location for the Olympic park used to be private houses with vegetable gardens.

Hundreds of workers toil around the clock to ensure everything will be finished on schedule.

Construction manager Murat Akhmadiyev says the park has a bright post-Olympic future.

“It will be inherited by future generations and become the core of a new town,” he says.

After the Games the Olympic Park will be transformed into a recreation area, while sports arenas are to become conference centres and shopping malls.

Three arenas will be dismantled and moved to other much colder Russian towns however, because it would cost too much to support several winter venues in Sochi’s sub-tropical climate.

Price for service

Guests at the 2014 Winter Olympics should see a different and modern Sochi.

But more than the construction and the renovation, Sochi needs a revolution in people’s minds.

Visitors to the Olympics may not be satisfied by the current level of service typically found in Sochi’s hotels.

The old Soviet mentality is still here – with its lack of friendly faces.

Very little English is spoken in Sochi, and even Russian sometimes poses a problem as many taxis are driven by immigrants from neighbouring Abkhazia.

Unlike most components of the budget, it is almost impossible to calculate the price to be paid for these social changes.

And that is something which does not yet seem to have been considered by the Russian authorities.

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