IOC begins inspection of Russian city seeking 2014 Games

An IOC team toured Sochi on Tuesday to evaluate the Black Sea resort's bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics, a candidacy backed by top-level Russian government support and funded by the nation's booming oil revenues.

The IOC inspectors attended a meeting with top federal and local officials and were to meet later with Russia's President Vladimir Putin at his seaside residence in Sochi.

Sochi is competing against Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeongchang, South Korea. The International Olympic Committee will select the host city on July 4. Russia has never hosted the Winter Games.

Russia's government has committed nearly US$12 billion (Ђ9 billion) to upgrade the area's infrastructure, transport and accommodations for winter tourists.

"Russia's stable economic growth ... has created new opportunities for major investment projects, including the Olympic project," Russia's Economics Minister German Gref told IOC inspectors, according to Russian news agencies. "We have all the basic assets at our disposal large state investment and private capital provided by major Russian companies."

Gref said about 40 percent of the funds would be spent on upgrading the region's transport network.

Some of the money has already been spent on the first stage of expanding the terminal of the small Adler airport that serves the region; the second stage is to include lengthening runways to handle larger aircraft.

Sochi, which has palm tree-lined beaches and lies at the foot of snowcapped Caucasus Mountain peaks, has long been a top vacation destination for Russians, but the region has remained relatively unknown to international travelers. The corresponding low level of development is one of the biggest hurdles the bid aims to overcome.

"The concept of our 2014 Olympics bid has all the components required for victory. We know that the International Olympic Committee expects to see compact, controllable and cost-effective games and we can provide this," Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov told IOC members Tuesday.

The Sochi bid plan calls for extensive rail systems to be built connecting the airport with Sochi city, where most of the Olympic hotel rooms would be, and with the ice sports venues that would be built in an area near the coast. A light-rail system is planned to take spectators into the Krasnaya Polana snow sports area some 50 kilometers (30 miles) away in the high mountains.

The low level of development in the mountains makes the region especially appealing to nature buffs, earning designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's also made the bid controversial for local ecological groups, which warn that massive development would irreparably harm the area's complex and pristine environment, reports AP.

The government and environmental groups, including the Russian office of the World Wildlife Fund, last week agreed on forming a board of ecology experts to oversee the development plans.

"We are putting environmental issues in the focus of our attention," Gref said Tuesday.

In Moscow on Tuesday, police quickly disbanded about a dozen environmental activists who attempted to stage an anti-Sochi demonstration in front of Gref's ministry.

The IOC panel arrived in Sochi after completing its tour of Pyeongchang last week. The group will inspect Salzburg next month.

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