Thu, Feb 22, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Putin boosts Sochi's Games bid

AMBASSADOR The Russian president did his best to improve the resort city's chances of hosting the Winter Olympics in 2014 while also showing off his skiing skills

AP , SOCHI, RUSSIA

Russian President Vladimir Putin skied smoothly down the slope, came to an easy stop and expressed confidence the same piste would be used by Olympic athletes at the 2014 Winter Games.

"We have some distinguished competition, our friends in [South] Korea and Austria ... but ours is best," he said, referring to Russia's bid to bring the Olympics to Sochi, a resort city sandwiched between the Black Sea and the snowcapped mountains.

The Russian president visited the Psekhako Ridge ski area, a newly developed facility in the Krasnaya Polyana region where the snow sports events would be held in 2014.

Decked out in layers of bright outdoor gear, Putin skied with a group of children and spoke to journalists gathered several hundred meters below the start of his run.

Asked about easing the laborious visa regime that is seen as one of the potential weak points of Russia's bid, he said: "A no-visa regime always has to be based on reciprocity. We are ready but our European partners are not ready."

Putin said ecologists' concern that development would damage the delicate environment "is a very important question for us."

"We have had good contact with ecological organizations, both Russian and international," he said. "It would be a great mistake if we did not take into account the opinion of these groups. We in no way should allow damage to the nature of this region."

Putin's visit coincided with a tour by International Olympic Committee (IOC) inspectors to evaluate Sochi's bid. Members attended a meeting with federal and local officials, and met with Putin at a closed evening reception.

Sochi is competing against Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeongchang, South Korea. The IOC will select the host city on July 4. Russia has never hosted the Winter Games.

Pyeongchang's chances appeared to have been boosted by a recent agreement aimed at reducing nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Putin also connected his country's Olympic bid with world peace.

"We are going to spend this money not on guns and cartridges ... but on something that will help people get together," he said during a later briefing.

Russia's government has committed nearly US$12 billion to upgrade the area's infrastructure, transport and accommodations for winter tourists.

"Whether we are awarded the Olympics or not, we need [to develop Sochi] because there are very few rest and recreation areas in the country for our citizens," Putin said. "Sochi is an ideal option because it combines the sea and these wonderful mountains."

Economics Minister German Gref said about 40 percent of the funds would be spent on upgrading the region's transport network.

Some of the money has already been spent on the first stage of a flashy expansion of the terminal of the small Adler airport that serves the region; the second stage is to include lengthening runways to handle larger aircraft.

Sochi, which has palm tree-lined beaches and lies at the foot of Caucasus Mountain peaks, has long been a top vacation destination for Russians, but the region has remained relatively unknown to international travelers. The corresponding low level of development is one of the biggest hurdles the bid aims to overcome.

"The concept of our 2014 Olympics bid has all the components required for victory. We know that the International Olympic Committee expects to see compact, controllable and cost-effective games and we can provide this," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov told IOC inspectors.

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