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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Puts On Skis to Back Sochi Bid

APPresident Vladimir Putin, right, and Russian Olympic Committee chief Leonid Tyagachev skiing down a slope on Krasnaya Polyana near Sochi on Tuesday.
SOCHI -- As if to show the whole world that Russian mountains are fit for kings, President Vladimir Putin took to the slopes here Tuesday, expertly negotiating powder-packed bumps for cameras, schoolchildren and International Olympic Committee members.

It was day three of a high-profile, high-stakes IOC visit to Sochi, which is bidding to host the 2014 Winter Games, and Putin wanted to make it clear to the delegates that he puts a premium on his favorite ski resort getting the gold.

After he came to a dramatic swoosh of a halt, the president removed his goggles and declared: "The cities in Austria and South Korea are worthy. But we are the best."

Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeongchang, South Korea, are also vying for the Olympics. The IOC will announce the winner July 4.

Speaking to reporters following his run down Psekhalo Ridge, the proposed venue for the biathlon and cross-country events, Putin sought to allay environmental concerns about the Sochi bid and urged the European Union to eliminate visas between Russia and Europe.

"It would be a huge mistake not to take into account what the environmental organizations think," Putin said, apparently chiding the construction firms now working round-the-clock to get Sochi up to speed.

He added that "we are going to make sure that builders maintain contact with" environmentalists, who have voiced concerns about the impact of construction on Sochi National Park, in the North Caucasus mountains.

Turning to the matter of visas, Putin said eliminating travel barriers between Russia and its neighbors to the immediate West would benefit everyone.

"Europe should be a continent without borders," he said. "Unfortunately, some of our partners are not ready for that."

If it were up to him, Putin said, he would scrap visas for people from EU countries "tomorrow."

The president turned philosophical when asked whether he thought Sochi would win the right to host the Games. Sochi and the nearby Krasnaya Polyana ski resort lack much of the infrastructure the other cities have. As one Sochi official put it in an interview last month, "Salzburg was made for the Winter Olympics."

"Sports," Putin said, "it's always a fight, and there are always surprises."

Also supporting the Sochi bid were former Olympic figure skating medalists Yevgeny Plyushchenko and Irina Slutskaya, who performed Monday for the IOC members.

Maxim Marmur / AP
President Putin being pulled by a snowmobile during a visit to Krasnaya Polyana's slopes near Sochi on Tuesday.
Plyushchenko, in an interview, angrily rejected talk that Sochi's lack of developed slopes, chairlifts, gondolas and other facilities would jeopardize its bid.

"You can say that there is weak infrastructure in Sochi right now: narrow streets and a lack of facilities that come up to Olympics standards," said Plyushchenko, who won a gold medal at the 2006 Turin Games. "But all that will come."

Regurgitating what has become the party line among Sochi officials -- that Russia, with its history of Olympics greatness deserves, finally, to host a Winter Games -- Plyushchenko said: "We have so many Olympics champions in this country that you can say we have actually earned the Games. We simply must have the Games."

Slutskaya, who won bronze at Turin, sounded particularly upbeat. "The atmosphere here is just wonderful," she said. "It shows how much the city wants the Games."

Plyushchenko performed his medal-winning routine at a show Monday evening for the IOC members. The magnificent skating contrasted with the small, temporary skating rink that had been erected for the delegates' visit.

The evening was further marred by malfunctioning microphones and a failing CD player. Still, a spectacular green laser show and an extravaganza put on by young figures skaters and so-called extreme skaters wowed the crowd.

Later Tuesday, Putin was expected to make Sochi's case personally to the 13 members of the IOC evaluation commission.

The president appeared to be taking a page from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose last-minute lobbying is said to have helped London score the 2012 Summer Games.

The leaders of South Korea and Austria are also doing their part to woo the IOC. South Korean Prime Minister Han Myung-sook hosted the commission last week at a dinner. Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer will be on hand when the evaluation commission visits Salzburg next week.