Olympics: Seaside resort becomes winter mecca




, Last Updated: 4:04 PM ET

For decades a seaside resort perfect for a Soviet-style summer holiday but little known outside of Russia, Sochi has undergone a makeover in six years to make it a world-class winter sports hub capable of hosting the Olympics in 100 days.

Until Russia was granted the right to host the Winter Olympics in 2007, Sochi had only the most basic infrastructure for alpine sports in its mountains and seemed caught in a hangover left over from the USSR on its Black Sea coast.

But with Russia vowing to adhere to the IOC's stringent demands for hosting 2014 Winter Olympics, everything is transformed in a city where the majority of the facilities had to be built from scratch.

The result is clear the moment a visitor arrives at the airport, which is itself brand new. The Olympic rings have been installed opposite the building with the Caucasus mountains beyond.

Many of the roads are new. A new passenger railway link extends from the airport to the mountains. New electricity stations had to be constructed. New buildings have sprung up to house hotels and offices. And this is before even mentioning the sports facilities.

"Everything has changed, the face of the city, the people, the ambiance," said Sochi resident of 15 years Nikolai Biryukov. "The city has truly undergone a metamorphosis."

'No other example in the world'

The most imposing sports facilities are those in the Olympic park on the Black Sea, were built in a little-developed neighbourhood that previously had residential homes and a large communal farm.

Five modern buildings which will house ice rink sports like ice hockey, figure skating, short-track and curling surround the Fisht stadium which is still under construction and will house the opening and closing ceremonies.

In total, the coastal sites can accommodate some 70,000 people and spread out over 256 hectares. Workers are still putting the finishing touches to the complex, particularly the roads and green spaces.

Some 50 kilometres away in the mountains above Sochi is the once-sleepy resort of Krasnaya Polyana, which will host the alpine skiing, ski jumping and sliding sports like bobsleigh. The facilities themselves are ready but other buildings like hotels and other accommodation, are still under construction.

The coastal site and mountain complex are linked by a new road and railway route that has already been tested and which should be officially opened by the end of the year.

The particularity of Sochi is "its compactness and the link between the sea and the mountains, within this small space," said Russian urban planner Oleg Kozinsky who is based in Sochi.

"I do not know of another example in the world where it has been possible to create sporting and urban infrastructure in such a short timeframe," he said.

Kozinsky acknowledged that the ambition of the project had "posed certain problems for the environment" and ecologists have decried the damage done in particular by mountain road construction, which required 77 bridges and 12 tunnels built right near protected nature reserves.

The speed of the urbanization has created an "understandable urban shock," he said.

For some Sochi residents, the huge work undertaken for the Winter Olympics has dealt a blow to the city whose development as a balmy seaside resort began at the end of the 19th century in Tsarist Russia.

In Soviet times two weeks summer relaxation in one of dozens of spas of the resort was seen as a prestigious break for the bureaucratic elite and top workers.

"Before it was very beautiful and Sochi was a true spa town and many people came for that," said Mikhail Karamanyan, 18.

"But now it has gotten really ugly. They have transformed the city into a megapolis. Before it really was very pretty," he said.