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(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

For general comments or questions, click here.
(Copyright 1992 2008, all rights reserved. The information in this report may not be published, excerpted, or otherwise distributed in print or broadcast without the express prior consent of Around the Rings.)

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By USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny

USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny (USA Gymnastics)

There is no mistaking that politics, geopolitical alliances, and relationships often influence the direction and decisions within the international Olympic Movement, resembling a microcosm of the United Nations model. In as much, we find ourselves sensitive to the cultural and philosophical nuances that can divide us and seek those that unite us through sport.

Americans face a challenge in this type of environment and have a tendency to overlook an important role as a global leader – to approach our efforts in a way that serves the movement. True leadership lies in cultivating change that represents the best interests of all involved and creates a sense of partnership with our international colleagues.

The USOC appears to be taking the proper steps to carefully re-establish its role and relationships before any future effort is made to again host the Olympic Games. The process is not like entering a horse in the Kentucky Derby, and any effort to bid on the Olympics should anticipate at least two cycles. The value of bringing the Olympics back to the United States is unquestioned, but the outstanding revenue issues need to be resolved and the geopolitics must be aligned to be effective.

Stability in our leadership is important, but equally so is having the right people out front. Constructive change has been made in the executive leadership of the USOC, which should more fully engage its internationally experienced sport leaders. The CEO should serve as the conductor with a well-tuned team that demonstrates an on-going commitment to work with the IOC and the IFs in whatever manner possible.

We must all rally around a common cause to properly integrate ourselves into the international fabric, with a strong focus on building genuine relationships with other NOCs and IFs, especially those within our region. A cohesive plan should be developed that prioritizes our role on an international basis with a large agenda versus one that appears single-minded.

We must also prioritize eradicating politics on the field of play. The world’s athletes have the right to expect that the rules apply equally to everyone; that all competitors meet the established criteria for participation; and, that impartiality will reign when their performances are judged. Leadership needs to be displayed by the various governing bodies to ensure this concept starts at the top and is applied at every level of competition.

The Olympic Movement has survived and prospered because of the human drama that is captured through incredible athletic performances. Each time an athlete steps on the field of play, they are ambassadors for everything that is right about sports. As leaders in the movement, we need to emulate this spirit in our global efforts and remain focused on helping all athletes achieve their dreams.

Op Ed written by USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny.

Penny has been a sports administrator for more than 20 years. Penny joined USA Gymnastics as vice president in 1999. As vice president he handled sponsorships, events, television, public relations, international relations and U.S. Olympic Committee affairs. He became USA Gymnastics president in April 2005.

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(Copyright 1992 2008, all rights reserved. The information in this report may not be published, excerpted, or otherwise distributed in print or broadcast without the express prior consent of Around the Rings.)

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