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  • Op Ed -- Change Comes to Sochi


    The new Krasnaya Polyana train station will usher visitors to the mountain cluster. (Getty Images)
    (ATR) In my first visit to Sochi in 2006, livestock ambled and grazed on the road to the mountains where ski venues were proposed for the Winter Olympic bid.

    Times have changed.

    The chickens, goats, horses, and cows are now far from the new highway which links the mountain venues to ones on the seaside. Running parallel to the road is a gleaming new railway to carry spectators to the Olympics as well as a generation of ski enthusiasts in the years ahead.

    Seven years after it started, the round-the-clock, seven-days-a-week parade of construction vehicles and dump trucks has ended on the winding old road that the new one replaces.

    Glinting on the coast of the Black Sea are the metal-clad venues in the first-ever Olympic Park built for the Winter Games.

    This extravaganza comes at no small price. Without any particular documentation, the number cited most frequently as the total cost for Olympic-related construction and long-term infrastructure improvements tops $50 billion.

    By external appearances, Sochi seems ready. Test events held during the past two years confirm venues are set for competition.

    What has yet to be proven and fully tested are the tens of thousands of people who will run the Olympics and Paralympics in February and March.

    Volunteers come to mind first, that corps of workers who form the backbone of services provided by the organizing committee. Russia is not a place where volunteering is as common as it is in the U.S. or some European countries. Mostly students and other young people form the majority of the volunteer program for Sochi, exposing this generation to the rewards and value of voluntary service.

    Paid workers will also be tested for the first time in the coming weeks as spectators, athletes, media, and others arrive for the Games. They will fill hotels, eat at restaurants, ride trains and buses, all staffed by paid workers who have yet get their first chance to practice their hospitality industry skills. Unlike previous Winter Olympic host cities such as Vancouver, Turin, and Salt Lake City that already offered a well-trained hospitality workforce, Sochi builds from scratch.

    A new road and train line will carry visitors up the mountain at Sochi 2014. (Getty Images)
    Patience and goodwill may be needed on the part of the visitors to Sochi to overlook any shortcomings they experience, whether from volunteers or hotel housekeeping. At the same time, we hope that businesses catering to the Olympic hordes understand the importance of making a good first impression and what that will mean to the future of the investment that’s been made to transform Sochi into a winter sports destination.

    But a more immediate worry is security. The grim discovery this week of booby-trapped bodies near a backup airport for Sochi may not have anything to do with a threat to the Olympics. Same goes for the bombings in Volgagrad late last month. But coming so close to the Games, any incident will be viewed through the prism of Olympic safety. Sochi itself and the Olympic venues have so far escaped trouble that could raise questions about the efficacy of security plans for the Games.

    The Russian government has put into place a ring fence of security around the Olympic region, which so far appears to have warded off trouble. This week, 400 elite Cossack soldiers took to their posts in Sochi, where they will be assigned to protect athletes and foreign dignitaries. How security is handled in the Olympic theater will shape impressions of Sochi that could be as long-lasting as positives about venues and infrastructure. Will security be unobtrusive and accommodating? Or will ham-fisted procedures make visitors vow never to return?

    How will protesters be treated now that President Vladimir Putin has lifted a ban against demonstrations? Whether opposed to the anti-gay propaganda law or other policies of Putin, protesters will make their voices heard - as they seem to do at every Olympic Games. For Putin, it's an opportunity to show a tolerant Russia by allowing dissenters to raise their voices.

    Horses still grazed the mountain when the Games were awarded in 2007. (ATR)
    There is much more at stake for Vladimir Putin, who is the single most identifiable individual responsible for bringing the Games to Sochi. He had the vision in his previous term as president of the Russian Federation to seek the Winter Olympics as an economic boost to the region of Sochi. It was Putin who turned on the charm in Guatemala in 2007, winning the votes of IOC members. Since then, he has made sure that the money was there and the will was strong to bring the Games to Sochi.

    National pride is clearly on the line. Not only are these the first Winter Games to be held in Russia, they are also the first Olympics in the 23-year history of the Russian Federation. The boycott-tarnished Moscow Games of 1980 are considered part of the Soviet era.

    Part of another era as well: the livestock that once ruled the roost on rural mountain roads near Sochi. The Olympics have a way of changing things.

    Written by Ed Hula

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