Russian resort warms to winter Olympics
Los Angeles Times
Vail, CO Colorado
SOCHI, Russia ” The changes in store for this dowdy Black Sea resort are captured in one city official’s vision for the typical taxi driver, now likely to drive a battle-scarred Russian model and wear shabby trousers and a scowl.
“We want him to sit not behind the wheel of a Volga but a Mercedes,” Deputy Mayor Vladimir Boychenko said. “We want him to wear a tie, with white leather gloves and a beautiful smile.”
That may sound farfetched, but don’t count Sochi out. After all, this famed summer destination, with its palm trees and magnolias, has incongruously managed to win the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Sochi’s subtropical strip of beach has long made it a premier playground for Russians of all ages, and the city’s mystique lives on despite unfashionable Soviet-era hotels and an overcrowded shore. Now, thanks to its Caucasus Mountain backdrop, city and national leaders aim to retool Sochi as a year-round money-making machine.
“The victory in the Olympic race means a lot to us,” Boychenko said. “It’s really a victory. It will allow us to jump forward several steps at a time. Russians know Sochi and love Sochi quite a lot. … We want to turn it into a world-level resort.”
Many of the locals are happy at that prospect. But others are afraid that when the developers move in, they’ll lose their homes and forests, and even their access to the nearby mountains.
For Russia as a whole, winning the Olympic bid in July was trumpeted as a major geopolitical victory reflecting the country’s newly restored weight in the world, which has come largely thanks to money from oil and gas exports.
Plans call for $12.5 billion to be poured into local preparations for the Games, providing a major economic boost to the wider Sochi region in southern Russia.
Optimists predict that the Games in Sochi will help ensure that Russia and neighboring Georgia resolve disputes over the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia without an eruption of war.
“I think it’s magnificent, because it’s a huge event for our country,” said Irina Larkina, 34, who was visiting Sochi on vacation and said she’d be back for the Olympics.
“Of course it’s a political victory too,” added her husband, Sergei Larkin, 35.
“We’re proud that the Olympics will take place here,” said Anna Ivanova, 50, who works at a Soviet-era resort hotel that caters to beachgoers. “The summer season is five months. The rest of the time people don’t have proper work, they’re just preparing for another season. All the new buildings will bring more tourists. We’ll have more work to do and we’ll make more money.”
The blocky high-rise resort hotels and beachside promenades have a quirky lost-in-time charm. Thrilled children, young lovers and overweight grandmothers and grandfathers spend their precious days here packed towel-to-towel on the narrow pebbly beaches, turning winter-white skin into painful-looking shades of pink.
In the lingering brightness of evening, vacationers stroll past shoreline shops and restaurants while the whiff of Caucasian spices and the energizing beat of Russian pop music float through the air.
Fighting traffic jams to get out of the city and then climbing through a series of tunnels along a rugged river valley, holiday-makers can reach Krasnaya Polyana, the mountain settlement where the outdoor Olympic events will be held. Even in summer, the simple chairlift here is packed with visitors riding up the thickly forested mountainside into the clouds.
In the summertime, the relatively narrow ski runs carved from the forest are lush with wildflowers, attracting hikers who feel they don’t need the chairlift.
Winter resort boosters point to these summertime day-trippers, arguing that some warm-weather vacationers will follow the reverse pattern: staying in a hotel in the forest with side trips down to the beach. Similarly, improved transport should allow winter visitors to stay in beachside hotels and zip up the mountain to ski.
Many new runs will be built for skiing and other outdoor sports, and some old-timers lament that the beauty of the slopes will be destroyed.
“I’m afraid this Olympics will end in an environmental catastrophe if they don’t control the process,” said Georgy Mocharov, 50, a security guard who lives in Krasnaya Polyana.
He stepped from his front yard onto the street and pointed up the mountain to a new ski lift, one of dozens planned. “You see that line where they cut the trees all the way to the top?” he said. “There will be around 50 of them.”
The planned site for the Olympic Village and indoor events such as skating is a rural seaside patch called the Lower Imeretinskaya Valley. There, residents fear eviction and environmentalists fear the loss of wetlands used by migratory birds.
But Olympics boosters sweep those concerns aside, their eyes on the riches to be gained from new development. One can almost see the mental cash registers ringing ” and easily feel the impatience with any obstacles.
Take, for instance, the Old Believers ” members of a conservative Russian Orthodox community whose ancestors were granted land here in czarist times. Maybe it’s time for them to move on, suggested Artur Tatulyan, deputy editor of the city-sponsored daily newspaper Novosti Sochi.
“They themselves may not be as religious as their ancestors were, but they have it in their blood to reject any innovations,” Tatulyan said. “Their traditional way of life is most important for them. They have fertile lands there, where they grow carrots and cabbages. But the question is, should it really be there, that close to the sea? Everybody understands this is an area that should be built over with hotels and resorts, where money should be made.”
The Lower Imeretinskaya Valley and the ski slopes of Krasnaya Polyana are now linked by a single two-lane road. But a new road is planned, and a rail line will whisk Olympic Village residents to the ski slopes in about 10 minutes, city spokesman Mikhail Konstantinov said.
“Krasnaya Polyana is already very popular among alpine skiers,” said Pyotr Fedin, owner of Alpika Service Co., operator of the main ski lift. “It only takes two hours to fly here from Moscow, and half an hour to come from the Sochi airport. It’s a soft, moderate climate with lots of snow. I think it will become a very popular winter resort. It will be the first high-class resort in Russia.”
Among the businesses active in Olympics-related development is Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas monopoly that also has extensive media holdings and other businesses. It has already built a set of VIP resort lodges along a river near Krasnaya Polyana. One effect is that longtime residents can no longer freely enter that section of mountainside, because a guarded security checkpoint has been set up.
Olga Loginova, 50, a construction engineer who grew up in Krasnaya Polyana, is among those angered by the new development.
“I’m against the Olympics,” she said. “The most negative thing is we don’t have the right to walk around freely on the mountains and along the rivers. It’s already happening, and it’s only going to get worse. They have those roadblocks, and you need a special pass to get by.”
Anton Arfanidi, 27, an electrical engineer living in Krasnaya Polyana, said he opposes the Olympics because of the environmental destruction they will cause.
“They’ll cut down trees here and there, and then everywhere,” he said. “They’ll build sports facilities and then accommodations, and then private residences. They’re already cutting down trees for ski runs and ski lifts.”
Dmitry Kaptsov, vice coordinator of Environmental Watch on North Caucasus, said some environmental organizations still hope the 2014 Olympics will end up somewhere else.
“For the next seven years, we’ll be fighting, and doing our best to minimize the damage and try to preserve something,” he said. “We will do our best to inform the world about what’s going on in Sochi. They want to turn Sochi into an elite and fancy resort, a place where only rich people can afford to have vacations.”