Environmentalists Warn Olympic Games Will Harm Sochi

Russia is preparing for the 2014 Winter Games — turning a sleepy valley in the Northern Caucasus Mountains into an Olympic village, with brand-new facilities for every Alpine sport. Officials say it will be a world-class destination for winter-sports enthusiasts long after the Games are over. Environmentalists say it's an ecological disaster in the making.

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OK. Environmentalists also have their eyes on Russia. The country is nearing the homestretch of a more than $50 billion race to prepare for the 2014 Winter Olympics. The games will be held in and around the southern Russian city of Sochi. President Vladimir Putin is promising a world-class show next February, but environmentalists say the region will suffer ecological damage for decades. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: A seaside resort town seems an odd choice for a Winter Olympics, but once a new railroad line is finished, Sochi will be just 30 minutes from a spectacular mountain valley. The Olympic village in the mountains is mostly complete, with brand-new hotels and restaurants that follow a quaint, vaguely 19th-century design, like a theme park conception of Switzerland.

At the base of one of the newly installed gondola lifts that will take visitors up the mountain, there's a big plaster model of the mountainside. Alexander Belokobylsky waves his pointer enthusiastically as he describes the various runs and race courses.

ALEXANDER BELOKOBYLSKY: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Belokobylsky is the managing director of the mountain part of the games. He says everything will be to the highest international standards, including the snow. Because the snow isn't always reliable in these mountains, the race courses and snow-boarding venues will have the biggest artificial snow-making system in the world.

Water from two reservoirs will be pumped up the mountain and vaporized by snow-making cannons that will blast world-class powder onto the runs. Officials have even figured out how to stockpile snow from the previous winter to fill in any gaps. Today, much of the real mountainside is invisible, shrouded by a thick, spring fog.

A winding, newly built road takes visitors up to the top of the bobsled and luge track. It's a steel-and-concrete tube that uncoils down the mountain like a snake, a mile long, with 17 banked turns. The course was tested in February by racers from the various world bobsled and luge federations. Valentin Getmanov is not a bobsledder. He's a 25-year-old employee of the track who got a chance to ride with a team on a test run.

VALENTIN GETMANOV: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: He says it was the longest minute of his life. In the fog, the building at the top of the bobsled run looks industrial, rather than sporty, like an oil-drilling platform anchored into the stone of the mountain. The construction of the Olympic venues is overseen by a state-run company. Its promotional material boasts that all these engineering marvels are done in a way that protects the environment. Local environmentalists disagree. Yulia Naverzhnaya belongs to the Ecological Watch of the North Caucasus.

YULIA NAVERZHNAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: In the mountains, she says, the developers have destroyed the landscape, adding that what they have done is senseless, because most of it is built in landslide zones. Although the region has a long history of geological study, Naverzhnaya says the Olympic developers ignored local expertise and used engineers who are unfamiliar with the terrain.

The proof, she says, can be seen in problems with the ski-jumping facility, which ran up huge cost overruns when officials had to contend with unstable ground at the building site. President Putin personally sacked the official in charge of the project when the cost ballooned by six times, from $40 million dollars to 265 million.

NAVERZHNAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Naverzhaya says the costly Olympic venues are unlikely to last over the long term, because landslides and shifting ground will take their toll. Environmentalists say the damage isn't limited to the mountain venues, either. The arenas for ice hockey and other skating events were built near the Black Sea shore.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES)

FLINTOFF: Natalia Kalinovskaya stands on a beach, where local people plant long surf-fishing poles among the stones.

NATALIA KALINOVSKAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: She's an environmental activist who says construction for the venues, housing and support facilities is destroying habitat for rare plants and wetlands that served as a resting place for migrating birds. The price, she says, is too high for Russia. The financial cost of the entire project is estimated at more than $50 billion dollars - the most expensive Olympics in history.

President Putin, who has a palatial home near Sochi, has invested his personal prestige in making this Olympic dream come true, as a way of showing the world a Russia that's worthy of international respect. Some three billion people are expected to watch the 2014 Winter Games on television, and most observers have no doubt that the show will be spectacular. Environmentalists say the true costs won't be known for years to come. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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