Putin visits Sochi to convince critics Olympics are on track
Russian president's trip designed to show 2014 Winter Games aren't 'falling apart'
VLADIMIR PUTIN has flown to the Black Sea resort of Sochi in a bid to reassure locals, environmentalists and sporting bodies that Russia's £32bn preparations for its first Winter Olympics are not "falling apart".
The Russian president is "nervous", says The Times, because the 2014 event has been heavily criticised and is beset with problems. Putin's visit is "ostensibly" to pacify local residents who are "putting up with traffic congestion and the constant thump of steam drills as viaducts, hotels and shopping malls are slapped up".
But there are wider concerns that the construction of the Games site, a symbol of Russian pride and a pet project for Putin, may be in trouble even though it is costing 25 times as much as the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Questions have been asked about the suitability of Sochi as a Winter Games site given its "lush sub-tropical climate" and average winter temperatures of about 11C. As a result, more than 400 snow cannons will be required to produce sufficient white stuff for the competition to go ahead.
Despite those doubts, a fortune is being spent on new infrastructure in the region ahead of the opening ceremony on 7 February, 2014. A 48km high-speed train line is being built to take competitors and spectators from the coast to the mountains where the skiing will take place.
The Winter Games' official website says the infrastructure created to serve the event will be "an important legacy for both the city of Sochi and the Krasnodar Region". But the Times says the "financial logic" of the massive infrastructure project is "dubious" unless the Sochi area is embraced by Russians as their new national ski resort, an outcome that is far from guaranteed.
In the meantime, power cuts are "playing havoc" with traffic lights and only half the 42,000 hotel rooms needed for the Games have been built. That hasn't stopped land and property prices in the region from soaring as "corrupt entrepreneurs, even underworld figures, grab a slice of the government money".
Dmitry Shevchenko from the Environmental Watch for the North Caucasus told the Times the city has suffered "catastrophic processes" which have destroyed "unique natural complexes" and damaged the Mzymta river.
There are also fears that the Games could make Sochi "a target for Islamic insurgents" in nearby republics like Chechnya, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria.
Putin, who has described Sochi as a perfect venue for a G8 summit and asked motor racing chief Bernie Ecclestone to stage a Formula 1 race there in October, 2014, will be hoping to prove the critics wrong.