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Russia: Sochi Awaits Verdict On 2014 Olympic Bid

Billboards in Russia promoting Sochi's 2014 Olympic bid (ITAR-TASS) July 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In Guatemala City today, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is expected to announce who will host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

Russia's Black Sea port of Sochi, Austria's historic city of Salzburg, and South Korea's Pyeongchang ski resort are the finalists.

Sochi, nestled between the Black Sea and the Greater Caucasus mountain range, has come a long way since its days as a Soviet vacation destination.

Russia's Third City

President Vladimir Putin is a frequent guest. So are many of Russia's newly rich and famous, who have turned the sleepy resort into what many are dubbing "Russia's third city."

Sochi has always been more of a seaside resort than a winter playground. And if it emerges a winner in Guatemala, most winter facilities will have to be built from scratch.

MORE: Coverage in Russian from RFE/RL's Russian Service.

New hotels and designer boutiques are mushrooming along the coast at a rapid rate.

"A colossal program of houses and office construction is under way here," says RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Oleg Roding, who is based in the city. "It's not on the scale of Moscow, but it's still huge. The city has changed during the last several years, and it looks completely different. We have more order here, and it's cleaner. Honestly, I can tell you that I like the city."

The Kremlin has staked a lot on Sochi's Olympic bid, recently approving a record $11 billion to upgrade the city's infrastructure and to build top-notch facilities at the nearby Krasnaya Polyana ski resort, where the Winter Games would be held.

The problem is that so far, most of those planned facilities exist only on paper.

Sochi has always been more of a seaside resort than a winter playground. And if it emerges a winner in Guatemala, most winter facilities will have to be built from scratch.

A Lot To Build

Russian political commentator Yulia Latynina has been closely observing the Russian bid to host the Olympic Games. She says the visiting IOC inspection committee in February got a lavish reception during its last visit, complete with folk bands, beautiful hostesses, and lots of vodka to entertain the delegation.

In fact, she says, that was all the local hosts had to offer.

"There was nothing else to show," Latynina said. "What was presented were only plans. There are plans to build an ice palace; plans for an Olympic village. And probably the biggest minus, which is impossible to cope with, is the problem of transportation."

Latynina notes there is only one narrow, winding road from Sochi to the mountains where the planned Olympic games would take place. That's fine for Putin's presidential limousine -- but not for transporting thousands of athletes, spectators, and journalists.

However, Latynina says there is a certain rationale for all the promotion of Sochi as a potential Olympic destination.

Local Concerns

Local officials and businesses want to get state contracts and money for reconstruction, and the rubles have already started pouring in.

A demonstration in Moscow in June against Sochi's Olympic bid (epa)

RFE/RL's Rodin says some Sochi residents are concerned that all the money planned for prestige sports projects would be better spent elsewhere.

"Many people are welcoming, but some think the Olympic Games will take away resources from the city's budget that would have been better spent on local needs," he said.

There are also environmental worries . Large areas around Sochi are currently part of a protected ecological preserve, and until now, building or privatizing that land was not allowed.

Environmental groups, including Greenpeace, say they fear the Olympic bid will provide cover for murky real-estate and construction deals.

Local authorities promise they will be mindful of the local ecology. But in this respect, Russia's track record is less than stellar.