As London wraps up, Sochi prepares for Olympics

The idea of holding the Winter Olympics in Sochi once seemed as

much of a long shot as a gold medal for Jamaica’s bobsledders – a

city that few outside Russia had ever heard of, in a country

notorious for inefficient construction, corruption, and a byzantine

visa regime.

But when Sochi won the right to host the 2014 Games five years

ago, boosted by President Vladimir Putin’s vigorous support, a vast

transformation began. When London ends its own Olympics on Sunday,

attention will turn to a region grappling with challenges as

daunting as London’s but much different.

Although Sochi has been a popular Black Sea resort since Soviet

times – its palm-fringed beaches framed by soaring, snow-capped

mountains – it had little of the infrastructure needed for hordes

of Olympic fans and squadrons of athletes.

Some 20,000 hotel rooms are being built, supplementing Soviet

spa complexes that mimic ancient Roman and Greek buildings – one of

the city’s most appealing idiosyncrasies.

The mountains had a few modest ski areas but there was nothing

that matched an international standard. Every competition venue has

had to be built from scratch.

Transport was a huge concern. Wedged between the mountains and

the sea, Sochi in places was basically a single road wide, and only

one road connected the seacoast area with the mountains. More than

350 kilometers (220 miles) of new roads and 200 kilometers (125

miles) of railway are being built to keep gridlock at bay.

The cost of all this is staggering. Putin said $30 billion

((euro) 24.5 billion) will be spent developing the region,

including the cost of the games.

Although many have complained that the central stadium and

hotels are behind schedule, International Olympic Committee

officials overall have praised Russia’s ability to meet the

challenges.

A tour of the area this week showed a region caught between its

past and future. The city’s main thoroughfare was clogged with

traffic. Disco beats and mangled karaoke poured out of cafes, men

in tank tops nursed beers and sunbaked women juggled children on

their hips.

But a new express train now connects the city with a modern new

airport and workers are diligently battling rocky terrain to lay

another railroad and a highway through the mountains to the

snow-sports cluster 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of town.

The IOC’s standards have forced Russian construction companies,

typically plagued by inefficiency and low quality standards, to

take safety and green technology seriously into account for the

first time.

Private investment in the region, on the rise after the 1990s,

got a second wind after the Olympics were announced in 2007. Rosa

Khutor, the new ski resort where most of the downhill events will

take place, was started as a $150 million project as early as 2003.

After the Olympics were announced, that figure ballooned to $2

billion for 100 kilometers (60 miles) of ski trails.

”We’re creating a mental shift and changing attitudes toward

people with disabilities, we’re creating a new standard in

environmentally-friendly construction and we’re creating the

volunteerism culture that did not exist in our country before,”

Dmitri Chernyshenko, president and chief executive of the Sochi

organizing committee, said in an interview with AP at the London

Games.

But despite the breakneck pace of construction, critics question

whether the city can build an entire Olympic complex and the

infrastructure it requires from scratch without doing too much

harm.

Environmental groups have charged that the railroad and highway

to the Krasnaya Polyana ski area have done untold damage to the

ecology of nearby Mzymta River. According to the World Wildlife

Fund, construction of the railroad and highway began after the

companies involved rushed through an ecological survey in just two

weeks.

Safety has been another major concern, with Sochi near other

parts of the Caucasus that have been plagued by Islamic insurgents

for years.

Recently, Alexander Tkachev, the governor of the Krasnodar

region that includes Sochi, stirred up controversy by calling for

Cossacks to come to Sochi to prevent migrants from flooding the

region. While the Cossacks, who formed a feared military force in

the time of the czars, will be unarmed, critics warned that the

move could fuel ethnic tensions and hate crimes against mostly

dark-complexioned Muslim migrants.

The Sochi Olympics have also been plagued by allegations of

corruption and construction delays. The Russian daily Izvestia

reported Thursday that court cases were being opened against the

two subcontractors responsible for the bobsled track and the

central stadium, which will be used for the opening ceremony. The

two companies are charged with exceeding their estimated

construction costs.

Finally, the residents of Sochi themselves openly worry that

despite Sochi’s rapid development, the city will be abandoned after

the games because the growth is unsustainable.

”Maintenance and technical upkeep (of these venues) is very

expensive. It’s possible that it will all fall into decay,” said

Sergei Dotsenko, Sochi resident and psychiatrist. ”These Olympic

Games take a lot of money from the (state) budget, and that money

won’t be given back. It’s just a question of prestige.”

Associated Press writer Stephen Wilson in London contributed to

this story.