Sochi gears up for Games tests
With Sochi and the surrounding area resembling a huge construction site, it is hard to imagine that in two months the region will host the first test events for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Men's and women's downhill and super-G ski races, part of the Alpine Europa Cup competition which is one notch below the World Cup, will be held at Krasnaya Polyana ski resort in mid-February.
When Sochi was awarded the 2014 Games in 2007, critics said the International Olympic Committee was taking a big gamble, not only because all the infrastructure had to be built from scratch but also because the city had no expertise in staging international sports competitions.
That is all about to change in just a few years. The Black Sea resort has also been selected to host a Russian Formula One Grand Prix from 2014 and is one of the 13 Russian cities which will stage matches during the recently-awarded 2018 World Cup.
Krasnaya Polyana, once a sleepy mountain village with 3,000 inhabitants some 70 kilometres from central Sochi, will host all the outdoor Olympic events, such as bobsleigh, luge, Alpine and cross-country skiing, ski jumping and biathlon, in 2014.
"It's a big risk for us," Sochi 2014 chief Dmitry Chernyshenko told Reuters during an inspection visit.
"I don't think ever before any (Winter Olympic) host city had staged test events three years prior to the Games, so I feel very excited but obviously a bit nervous as well.
"At the same time, I have little doubt that everything will be ready on time and we'll have a successful Europa Cup as well as the Games themselves."
Warm weather has added worries for the organisers.
With temperatures approaching 20 degrees Celsius and no snow on the ground even at 2,000 metres above sea level, Krasnaya Polyana, which translates as 'Red Glade', little resembles a ski resort.
"In December we don't have much snow here but I can promise you that in three or four weeks we'll have lots of it," the area's managing director Alexander Belokobylsky told Reuters.
"Nevertheless, we have 150 snow-making machines ready, just in case, and the piste is nearly ready," he said, referring to the Olympic downhill course, which starts at 2,045 metres for men and at 1,745m for women and finishes at 960m.
"We just need to install electrical cables, put up a starting gate and warm-up tents for the skiers, officials, media and the VIPs at the finish area."
Sarah Lewis, secretary general of the International Ski Federation, said she was confident that the Olympic test events would run smoothly.
"There is no point getting nervous about a lack of snow just yet, there are still two months to go," Lewis told Reuters.
"The competition should be a good learning experience for the local organisers. It's a completely normal process, starting from the Europa Cup and going step by step all the way through to the Olympic Games."
With Alpine world championships taking place at the same time in Germany's Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Lewis said she expected a lot of top skiers to come to Russia in February.
"Unlike the World Cup, in world championships each country, including top nations like Austria, France or Germany, can only field no more than four skiers in any event," she said.
"So there will be a lot of top skiers not competing at the worlds and most of them would be eager to come to Sochi and get first-hand knowledge of the Olympic course."
To make way for the Olympic downhill, organisers had to chop down more than 100 hectares of forest, Belokobylsky said.
"We had ecologists and various environmental groups worried at the beginning but now the problems have been solved."
The organisers also had to convince local residents that staging the Games would bring huge benefits to the area.
"Most locals were opposed to the Games at first," recalled Belokobylsky, himself a Krasnaya Polyana native.
"But little by little the people's perception has changed and, although you still could find a few hard souls here and there, the majority have taken the Olympics to their hearts."
Another major issue had been the risk of seismic activity in the region.
"The Caucasus are relatively young mountains so there's always a chance for an earthquake," Belokobylsky explained.
"We've had small ones from time to time. However, all our structures have been built to withstand almost any earthquake, even as big as nine points on the Richter scale.
"Of course, the cost of the construction in such an environment is much higher but you just have to deal with that."