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2010 Olympics

Good Luck Sochi, You'll Need It

Next Winter Games venue abuts war zones, and has enraged environmentalists and 1,500 citizens losing their homes.

Geoff Dembicki 24 Feb 2010TheTyee.ca

Geoff Dembicki reports for the Tyee.

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This should be interesting: Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov

Russian politicians have supermodels for aides. You'd think that, anyway, after a Tuesday morning press conference that saw Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson and Premier Gordon Campbell unofficially hand off the Olympics to their Slavic equivalents.

Russia will host the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, a sub-tropical resort town on the Black Sea. The Robson Square Media Centre was packed with Russian delegates, eager to watch Sochi's mayor and the vice-governor of surrounding Krasnodar Region shimmer with Olympics gleam. Several ski-thin blonde knockouts that wouldn't have been out of place in New York Fashion Week helped run the event.

The supermodels -- or aides, if you like -- were joined by a brusque Russian man who evicted at least one journalist from his seat. "Sorry, this is not free," he said, immediately slapping a sticker onto the still-warm chair. For at least the past eight years, Vancouver critics have worried about the social and economic consequences of hosting the Olympics. Think we've got it bad here? As Russia prepares to welcome the world to beautiful Sochi, critics charge the former Soviet giant with strong-arming residents, devastating the environment and disregarding security crises right on its doorstep.

Sochi's preparations 'out of control'

Earlier this month, the World Wildlife Fund condemned Russian Games organizers. "We believe that Olympic preparations have gone out of control, the quality of construction is low, and huge damage has been done to the environment," WWF Russia chief Igor Chestin said in a statement. The impact of a US$8 billion highway and railroad project linked to the Games was studied for two weeks by a team of less than ten people, the group claimed. Quiet bureaucratic decisions altered borders of the UNESCO-protected Caucasian Biosphere Reserve so a road could cut through.

Meanwhile, Parliamentary amendments let organizers cut endangered trees to build facilities. The WWF acknowledged some 2009 public consultation, but doubted whether it was given serious weight.

Nonsense, repliedOlympstroy, the state agency responsible for Games construction. It claimed all work meets international green standards.

'They'll have to shoot me': resident

In February 2009, a major story in German news source Der Speigel revealed serious Olympics concerns among Sochi residents. The coastal city has a population of over 400,000. Fifteen-hundred people are being forcibly resettled for Olympics construction, according to the report. A resident of nearby Adler told Der Speigel her house would be bulldozed for a Games stadium. "I'm not going," the woman said. "If they want my land, they'll have to shoot me."

Last May, Human Rights Watch researcher Jane Buchanan warned the Sochi Games could be tainted by abuse unless organizers changed their ways. There's no working process to let residents know their homes and property will be seized, she wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

"The government has the right to expropriate land that is needed for the Games. But when it exercises that right, it must do so in a way that doesn't trammel the rights of those concerned," she wrote. "Too often, government appears to be insensitive to these needs"

2014 Games in security crisis zone?

Sochi is practically in the backyard of three security no-gos: Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Chechnya. The first two fought a short but bloody 2008 break-away war with Georgia. Afterwards, the Georgian National Olympic Committee urged the IOC to move the Games from Sochi, for security reasons.

"Holding the Olympic Games on this territory," read a letter to IOC President Jacques Rogge, "will endanger the lives of participating sportsmen and sportswomen and undermine the image of the world's premier sporting event."

The IOC declined the request, arguing security is up to host countries to figure out.

Earlier this month, Russia signed a military agreement with Abkhazia. The 2014 Olympics host was one of only four countries to officially recognize the tiny nation -- and its neighbour South Ossetia -- after the 2008 war. This month's deal allows Russia to formally operate a military base in Abkhazia. Georgian officials condemned the arrangement, likening it to Soviet-era East Germany.

"I personally won't have anything to do with the current Georgian president," said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. "He's persona non grata for Russia."

Sochi's task 'to minimize difficulties'

At Tuesday's Vancouver press conference, Robertson and Campbell pledged to share lessons from the 2010 Winter Games. "You are in for the time of your life in Sochi," Campbell stated emphatically.

For now, Russians swarm Vancouver, looking for clues to their upcoming host experience. There's so many visitors, the Russian embassy is "on overdrive", according to one delegate. Lots attended Tuesday's conference. Their expensive cologne and perfume drowned out the stale sweat of reporters seated among them.

Organizers let three journalists ask the Sochi representatives questions. One was about weather. Another was directed at Campbell. The first reporter asked whether Sochi would tolerate protesters during its Games. In addition to concerns about the environment, relocations and security, observers worry about huge costs, unfinished venues, the rights of indigenous Circassions and heavy free speech restrictions.

Protesters are "indeed possible," Sochi mayor Anatoli N. Pakhomov said through a translator. "Our task it to minimize the difficulties that the preparation and running of the Winter Olympics may bring to the residents of Sochi and neighbouring areas."

From one Olympics host city to the next, good luck!  [Tyee]

Read more: 2010 Olympics

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