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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Green' Fears Dog Sochi's 2014 Bid

SOCHI -- Persistent environmental concerns and the many facilities waiting to be built -- including skating rinks, bobsled tracks, chairlifts and hotels -- could sink Sochi's bid to host the 2014 Winter Games, despite extensive government support.

That was the conclusion of the International Olympic Committee's evaluating commission as it wrapped up a six-day visit to the Black Sea resort Friday.

Further complicating Sochi's bid are ongoing energy problems: Late last week, a gas pipe briefly malfunctioned, forcing a shutdown. The shutdown followed twin blackouts earlier this month due to high winds and heavy snowfall.

But the commission praised the strong support that the bid is getting from Moscow. The government is providing $7.2 billion to turn the resort into a world-class venue; another $4.8 billion is coming from businesses.

Still, there are major environmental obstacles to be tackled. While Sochi bid officials said all the problems had been ironed out, Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund representatives said, in fact, that they had not.

At the heart of the disagreement is a kilometer-wide mountainous buffer zone separating protected federal land from unprotected land in Sochi National Park. Sections of a bobsled track are to be built in the buffer zone.

Additional facilities that are unnecessary for the Games are also being put in nearby.

"They want to build an exclusive golf club that they cleverly categorize under the quaint euphemism 'necessary social infrastructure,'" said Mikhail Kreindlin, who heads Greenpeace's Moscow office.

Kreindlin also disagreed with the bid committee's view that investment in the North Caucasus will help protect federal lands, which are home to brown bears and wild deer.

To address environmentalists' fears, the Sochi 2014 bid committee is creating a working group, which will get a veto over all building projects.

But it remains to be seen whether the same green activists who raised the concerns will actually get a seat at the table. Kreindlin said Friday that he had yet to be contacted by officials.

Greenpeace and WWF representatives met last week with six members of the IOC evaluation commission, including the commission's ecological adviser, Simon Balderstone.

"They listened to us, thanked us and left," the WWF's Pyotr Gorbunenko said of the meeting at the Olimpiisky Business Center.

At a final news conference Friday, IOC members would only say that they hope the outstanding environmental issues are dealt with by Russian officials.

"We very much hope that solutions can be found in the near future," IOC evaluation commission chairman Chiharu Agaya told a packed audience at a hotel here. "We recognize the importance of the environment."

During its tour of Sochi and nearby Krasnaya Polyana, the IOC commission was also shown elaborate plans for a coastal Olympic Park. The park is expected to include state of the art skating, hockey and curling stadiums and housing for athletes and journalists.

IOC members praised the plans but warned that time is of the essence. For now, the planned park is a 2-square-kilometer field full of tractors and dirt.

"Should you get the Games here, you only have seven years to go, and so the time factor would be rather pressing," Agaya said.

Sochi bid officials have actually given themselves only 6 1/2 years: The Olympic Park is scheduled to open in June 2013.

Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the bid committee, turned the lack of facilities into an advantage.

"Sochi is a blank canvas ready for a painter to create a masterpiece," he said.

IOC officials acknowledged that Sochi has certain undeniable strengths: There is widespread support, from President Vladimir Putin, who hosted an IOC dinner here Monday, on down; Russia has a rich history of Winter Olympic medalists; and the city is proposing a compact plan for the Games, which includes two "clusters" of facilities separated by roughly 50 kilometers.

The committee will announce on July 4 which city -- Sochi or one of its two rivals, Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeonchang, South Korea -- gets the Games.

IOC members visited Pyeonchang earlier this month and will be in Salzburg next month.