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Sochi might not be the 'Golden Ticket' for local residents

Posted by Dan Egan  February 2, 2014 05:45 PM

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"There's plenty of money out there. They print more every day. But this ticket, there's only five of them in the whole world, and that's all there's ever going to be. Only a dummy would give this up for something as common as money. Are you a dummy?”Grandpa George, on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

I’m no dummy, so when the opportunity to help cover the Olympics for Boston.com and the Boston Globe using one of their five Olympic Credentials, I said yes! No security threats or travel issues were going keep me from the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Today I felt as lucky as Charlie Bucket!

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It is very nice to be here ahead of the rush. People are friendly and not too overloaded yet. The main media center is huge and empty, but that will change. I headed out to discover the Olympic Venues in the Olympic Park. Very cool, but like all major events, there is always a bit of controversy, and there is no shortage of that here in Sochi, especially when it come to the environment.

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The Olympic Park is located in what was once a swamp. The chief architect of Sochi's 2014 venues sought inspiration from previous Olympic Games host cities to transform a "swamp" into an expanse of beauty. Oleg Kharchenko, chief architect of venue construction company Olympstroy, visited Seoul (1988) and Barcelona (1992) on planning missions.

"I visited several cities to see what the Olympic Games could give to a city," Kharchenko said at a press conference about sustainability on Sunday.

The total budget for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games is $51 billion

"I think we have given this city (Sochi) a chance to survive by spending so much money and putting so much effort into this city,” Kharchenko said.

It's easy to think that $51 billion should give a place a chance to survive. I know it would help me out a bit.

Kharchenko defended the cost of the stadiums.

"As for the extravagance, for any architect involved in this project, it is a great honor and they aim to create great venues for the Olympics," he said.

Mr. Wonka once said to Charlie, “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted?

“What happened?” replied Charlie.

“He lived happily ever after,” Mr. Wonka said.

So the question is will the residents of Sochi live happily ever after? Many are wondering. A key element of the transport infrastructure is the new road linking Sochi's coastal cluster to the mountain cluster in Krasnaya Polyana.

Danila Ovcharov, Sochi 2014 head of sustainability and the environment, said authorities had taken steps to limit the damage to the region's ecosystems caused by the road's construction.

"Naturally any construction site incurs certain damage to the environment, but all the impact to the environment is compensated for and this process is being carefully managed and monitored," Ovcharov said.

Kharchenko felt any damage to the environment was outweighed by the benefits for the region.

"There isn't a place in Russia with so many buildings constructed that are scrupulously following green building standards," he said.

Kharchenko said that when he first visited the site of the Olympic Park before construction began in 2009, it looked like a swamp.

"There were a large number of obsolete buildings, it was not a proper eco-friendly environment. It wasn’t a place you would like to be born or to live. We have created a totally new city.”

All of this is true. I was here in the winter of 2010, and wow, I couldn’t believe the construction that was going on then. Every 7 to 12 miles along the road to the mountains was a “man camp” that slept 700-900 workers. They were moving a river, mountain and anything in the way of the new high speed train and highway to the Krasnaya Pollyana area,. This place was transformed.

This is the most expensive Olympics ever, but every new international event tops the spending list. Just look at the America’s Cup, the Soccer World Cup and same sort of things are said.

A recent ABC and AP News story stated this about the Olympic construction:

“People elsewhere in Sochi and surrounding villages have seen the quality of their life decline because of Olympic construction. In the village of Akhshtyr, residents complain about an illegal landfill operated by an Olympics contractor that has fouled the air and a stream that feeds the Sochi water supply. Waste from another illegal dump in the village of Loo has slid into a brook that flows into the already polluted Black Sea.”

Its hard not to imagine that one of the largest construction sites on the planet is a place where there is very little environmental concern that some damage wasn’t done. Experts from the United Nations Environment Program have and will continue to visit Sochi twice a year until 2030 to monitor the damage to the region. So we will learn more as time goes on.

I have asked everyone I have met, from the bus drivers to the hotel staff, the staff here at the media center, and beyond, and I have yet to meet a local Sochi resident. But I am going to keep searching, because as the world comes to Sochi over the next three weeks, and those of us who won the “Golden Ticket,” we'll have to keep in mind the local residents who were here before we came and will be here long after the closing ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

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