Sochi a point of national pride for Putin's Russia

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — 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 on 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 25-kilometer (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 2,300 meters (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. "Preparations for the games are like a magic wand. Once you've waved with it, you can really accelerate the changes and speed up all the processes."

All of the indoors sports, including figure skating, speed skating, ice hockey and curling, will be held down on the Black Sea coast in five new arenas which have already been completed. The only remaining arena to be commissioned is the Olympic Stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies will be held.

This winter and spring, Sochi is hosting 22 test events at the same venues where the Olympic athletes will compete next year.

Cross-country skiers who took part in a test event last weekend praised the courses but said they were taken aback by the high level of security.

"I've never been in a place where there's this much security, this many security officers, this many checkpoints," said Noah Hoffman, a member of the U.S. cross-country ski team. "It's twofold: It makes you feel very safe, but at the same time it's a little bit of a hassle. I don't know if there's a big security threat here, but they certainly have everything under control."

From the entrance to the cable car at the foot of the mountain to the slopes at the top, security guards and volunteers checked credentials every step of the way. Athletes, journalists and the few spectators who attended the test events were stopped when getting onto a shuttle bus or snowmobile, and again when they arrived at their destination. During a single journey, it wasn't unusual for a badge to be meticulously scrutinized at least a dozen times.

Guards with assault rifles and German shepherds patrolled the sports venues in groups, although they did not approach visitors and seemed to try to keep a low profile.

Chernyshenko said the security measures would be exactly the same during the games and insisted that they were no different from those taken at past Olympics held elsewhere in the world.

Russia is wary of an Islamic insurgency that has long troubled a patchwork of predominantly Muslim republics located on the other side of the mountain range. The insurgency began in Chechnya during separatist wars with Moscow in the 1990s and spread throughout the region. In Dagestan, the current epicenter of the violence, bombings and shootings targeting police and other officials occur almost daily. In recent years, however, the terror attacks have largely been confined to the North Caucasus region, rarely spilling out into the rest of Russia.

To the south of Sochi along the Black Sea coast lies Abkhazia, a breakaway part of Georgia allied with Russia, which has troops stationed there. Georgia lost its last remaining bit of territory in Abkhazia during a brief war with Russia in 2008. Relations between Russia and Georgia are only now beginning to thaw.

"I can assure you that law enforcement agencies are taking unprecedented measures to protect our tourists from any danger," Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov said. "I'm confident that our Olympics are going to be the safest ones ever."

Another concern for Sochi is the weather. The snowfall this winter has been abundant, but the Russians have made contingency plans in light of the warm weather and rain that disrupted some of the freestyle skiing and snowboarding events at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

The Rosa Khutor resort, which will host the Alpine skiing and other events, has one of the biggest snow-making systems in Europe, according to its managing director, Alexander Belokobylsky. The resort has two water reservoirs and 400 snow generators installed along the slopes. Rosa Khutor also stores snow through the summer, keeping it packed and under a tight insulated cover, and plans to store 150,000 cubic meters (195,000 cubic yards) of snow for the games.

The Olympic village for athletes competing in Alpine skiing is still under construction, as is the one for skaters and other athletes who will be based on the coast. The third Olympic village, however, is close to completion and housed the cross-country skiers during the weekend's test events.

Hoffman was impressed by the spaciousness of the rooms in the chalet where he stayed, but his first shower sent water streaming into the room below. Even though workmen arrived to fix the plumbing, he decided not to use the shower for fear it might leak again.

His American teammate, Jessie Diggins, whose room was directly under Hoffman's, said such glitches are nothing to worry about.

"Everywhere you go there's going to be one or two little kinks, nothing is going to be perfect, but I think they'll be done," Diggins said. "It's really impressive how fast they were able to put together all this infrastructure. I think with one year to go we'll have even more."