(ATR) The twisting and turning road to the mountain venues in Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics can be a dangerous route to travel. It also may be a perfect symbol of the perils still ahead for these first Winter Games in Russia.
Forty km of bends in the road and two-lane tunnels make the 50-minute journey from sea level to mountains (and then the return) an arduous trip. With construction for Olympic projects now on a 24-hour schedule, a constant stream of dump trucks, cement trucks, and huge trailers towing heavy equipment make the route that much more challenging — and risky.
Police do what they can to bust drivers passing unsafely. Our car to the airport during last week’s visit to Sochi got stopped for just that. Accidents are common, sometimes with deadly consequences.
Fortunately, this is not the road most will take in 2014. A new highway and rail line running through the Mzynta River valley will become the Olympic transport artery once construction is complete. The project – said to be the biggest in Europe – will soon employ upwards of 30,000 workers in the push to have venues and infrastructure ready as much as two years before the Games.
The changes that have taken place since my last visit to Sochi more than three years ago are extraordinary.
From the coastal venue cluster to the mountains, the transformation taking place was just a talking point when I visited Sochi, then a candidate city for 2014.
At the Olympic Park on the shore of the Black Sea, the Bolshoi Ice Arena is going up with the speed skating arena not far behind. The Olympic Village is underway and one of three removable arenas is being assembled; it will be moved to another location in Russia post-Games.
The project with the biggest footprint is the massive rail line of Russian Railways that connects the park to the airport, the mountain venues as well as the center of Sochi. Combined with a highway, construction stretches alongside the Mzynta River valley for 40 km, ending near Rosa Khutor, the resort that will host alpine and other premier events in 2014.
From upwards of an hour of travel now, the new transport link will halve the time it takes to go from the coast to the mountains.
Sometimes crossing the river — sometimes running alongside the churning waters — this engineering marvel might face a tough time in the U.S. or Canada due to laws regulating construction in wetlands. Or if it were to be built, years of litigation and other challenges would need to be overcome first.
That’s not to say the environmental impact of the project is being overlooked. Permits and safeguards are needed for this kind of work in Russia, too. But this project would seem to have benefitted from a fast track approval process, perhaps a good example that government support for the Olympics means more than spending money.
A tour of what is known as Tunnel Number Five (of six) gave journalists a first-hand look at this extraordinary project on the Olympic rail line. Nearly 3km long and 10m wide, the tunnel was bored through a mountain by a behemoth of a machine that chews up rock and earth and leaves the finished tunnel wall in place.
In my 20 years of Olympics coverage, opportunities to be granted access to the bowels of such a construction project, clambering over narrow stairways, wooden gangways and muddy stretches, have been rare. We even got inside the boring machine. And while we all wore the requisite hard hat, the feet were overlooked: some of the media were shod in thin-soled strappy sandals that would have triggered gasps from workplace safety officials in previous Olympic cities.
At the end of the line in Rosa Khutor, the alpine venue cluster, a collection of buildings rises on both sides of the river. Three years ago, this construction site was just a clearing on the riverbanks. Now new hotels and apartments are being built to serve what is hoped will be a year-round tourist industry, after the Olympics have gone. It’s a risk that project developer Interros, headed by tycoon Vladimir Potanin, is apparently willing to take.
This “if we build it they will come” philosophy even includes a dream of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for a university in Sochi dedicated to the Olympics. He took part in a ceremony last week with IOC President Jacques Rogge to mark the imminent start of construction for the school. Rogge says he expects that the world’s 200+ national Olympic committees will be eager to send students to the university.
With his university as one of the many projects underway, Putin says he expects the Olympics will contribute to the economic development of southern Russia.
It’s not the first time grandiose vision of Olympic legacy has cloaked an Olympic city. In Sochi, figures like $30 billion in government spending are being reported for infrastructure.
But like the twisted road to the mountains, the route to that legacy is not so direct. And it requires some risky moves, like nerve-wracking lane changes. We did make it to the airport last week without harm – and with plenty of time to spare.
Let’s hope the hands on the wheel of the Sochi Olympic machine are able to navigate the road to 2014 with the same fortunate outcome.
Written by Ed Hula
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