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Sochi 2014: The final countdown

In little under a year, the world's finest winter sports stars will gather in Sochi for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Mike Rowbottom, chief feature writer for insidethegames.biz, visited the Russian resort for the Olympic Review and reports on the city's remarkable transformation as it prepares for the greatest show on snow and ice.

Sochi has long been Russia's most popular holiday resort, with visitors drawn to the warm weather and palm-fringed avenues of a city that stands as far south as Nice on the French Riviera. But following an astonishing seven-year transformation, Sochi is about to explode onto the global stage when it hosts an event more traditionally associated with ice, snow and temperatures at the other end of the scale – that is, the Olympic Winter Games.

A place people can visit all year round

Speaking to the world's press in November last year, Sochi's mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov, announced: "The key achievement of the Sochi Winter Games will be that Sochi is no longer regarded simply as a summer resort, but as a place people can visit all year round. Sochi has 300 days of sunshine a year. It has a unique sub-tropical climate, so in March and April you can go skiing there and still find people sunbathing on the coast. It can be 10 or 15 degrees [Celsius] below freezing in Krasnaya Polyana and 15 degrees on the coastline."

Greater Sochi is situated on the south-west tip of Russia and on the northern shore of the Black Sea, along 145km of the coastline close to the Caucasus Mountains, and its population is around 400,000. "This is really a unique place," Pakhomov added. "Sochi has always had the capacity to be an all-round resort, not just the most popular Russian summer resort. We never had the infrastructure or the conditions to make it happen before – but the Winter Games have prompted us to take that opportunity."

A world-class winter sports destination

That opportunity has required considerable efforts by the organisers. But this mammoth work will soon be complete, with the creation of a world-class winter sports destination. Sochi Olympic Park is a coastal cluster of indoor venues so compact that each is no more than a few minutes stroll from another, while the world's finest winter sports athletes will also be able to compete at outstanding  Alpine venues approximately 40km inland, deep in the densely wooded mountains of Krasnaya Polyana.

Sochi Olympic Park will contain all the ice venues – the Bolshoi Ice Palace and the Shayba Arena, which will host ice hockey, the Ice Cube Curling Centre, the Adler Arena (speed skating), the Iceberg Skating Palace (figure skating and short track speed skating) – as well as the Fisht Olympic Stadium, the main Olympic Village and the International Broadcast Centre and Main Press Centre. Skiing and sliding sports will take place in the mountain cluster, which is also very compact, with an average distance of 4km between the mountain sub-village and the venues.

Many venues have already hosted major events

Travelling to inspect the Olympic site in November as part of the World Press Briefing, it was possible to get a sense of the scale and intensity of the enterprise. As our bus from the hotel in Krasnaya Polyana traversed the winding route to the coast, we saw first-hand the amount of work that has gone in to transforming the region – both in the mountains and in the city of Sochi itself, just a few hundred metres away from the rolling, olive green water of the Black Sea.

On day two, as we made the shorter journey up to the Alpine venues, clouds had covered the mountaintops, drifting down almost to ground level, and the rain sheeted down. Despite the adverse conditions, the building operation continued. Everything will have to be ready for the Games and judging by the state of the venues at that stage, there was no danger of that not being the case.

Many of the venues have already hosted major events, including the Iceberg Skating Palace – all icy blue and white, with the lines of the building flowing like water – which staged the ISU Figure Skating Grand Prix Final in December. Facilities for the ice hockey are – like every other venue at the Sochi 2014 Winter Games – purpose-built and expansive. The biggest matches will be played in the Bolshoi Ice Palace, whose vast white roof was populated on our visit by the tiny figures of workers resembling mountaineers edging up an ice sheet.

A new rail metro system

Naturally, Sochi airport itself was still undergoing construction in November as work was underway on a new terminal. During Games-time, arrivals will be linked via a new rail metro system to the coastal and Alpine clusters, including the Olympic and media villages.

"We have very thoroughly considered the question of transport," said Pakhomov. "We are building a new railway, three new highways, eight new road junctions. The main route between the coast and the Alpine cluster is 47km long, 30km of which is underground."

Sochi 2014 will also feature 12 new events, including the debut of women's ski jumping. The other additions are ski halfpipe (men and women's), a figure skating team event, a mixed relay in biathlon, a team relay in the luge, snowboard parallel special slalom (men and women's), and snowboard slopestyle and skiing slopestyle (men and women's) events – in which athletes will do tricks while heading down a course featuring rails, big jumps and bumps. IOC President Jacques Rogge observed of the latter: "Such events provide great entertainment for the spectators and add further youthful appeal."

By the end of 2012, the Sochi Volunteer Programme had received more than 150,000 applications, and 80 per cent of the places had been filled. Several hundred volunteers have already had experience of what will be required of them by serving as Games Makers at the London 2012 Olympic Games. While the legacy of any successful Games is often intangible, there are concrete plans for the future use of all the Sochi venues in order for it to become a future centre for sport, both in the Alpine and coastal hubs.
The longest Torch Relay in Olympic Winter Games history

Meanwhile, the Sochi 2014 Organising Committee is planning a Torch Relay that will be the longest in Olympic Winter Games history. Due to start in Russia on 7 October 2013, it will cover 65,000km of Russian soil, carried by around 14,000 Torchbearers over 123 days. It is a fitting image for the scope of Sochi's – and Russia's – ambition.