Olympic countdown: Tough sledding for Sochi organizers

SOCHI, Russia — The bomb detonated nearly 500 miles from this resort city on the shore of the Black Sea. Yet last week's deadly assault on a passenger bus in the town of Volgogrod is serving as a fresh and unwelcome reminder of the terrorist threat that persists in the shadow of the Winter Olympics' host city.

Carried out by a female suicide bomber later identified as the wife of a prominent operative in the Muslim insurgency that has ravaged Russia's North Caucasus region, the strike could not have come at a worse time.

As Russia begins the symbolic countdown this week to welcome the world, the attack, which killed six and wounded more than two dozen others, has diverted attention from other pressing questions of readiness that have dogged final preparations for several recent Olympics. Wednesday marks 100 days until the opening ceremony of the XXII Winter Games.

Security is among the most pressing concerns for organizers, who have faced questions about Russia's law banning gay "propaganda," passed in June, and the city's ability to host thousands of visitors in an area where venues, hotels and transportation infrastructure are being built from scratch. Sochi's budget of $50 billion for the Games will make it the most expensive in history.

Construction cranes loom over half-finished high-rise hotels; workers are laboring through the night on unfinished road and landscape projects; commuter traffic routinely chokes the narrow coastal roads that lead to the Olympic Park and mountain venues.

Then there is the question of weather. Balmy conditions, from the rocky beaches to the Rosa Khutor Alpine ski venues, recently had visitors shedding their jackets for shirt-sleeves.

While there is snow on the highest elevations of the western slopes of the Caucasus range, there wasn't a flake to be found at the Laura Cross-Country and Biathlon Center.

Yet the brown landscape and the unfinished venue where heavy construction equipment and legions of laborers are still paving roads has not deterred Andrey Markov.

"We can guarantee that there will be snow," the venue manager and former Russian Olympian declared.
The boast is not just Markov's Russian swagger doing the talking. Vast repositories of snow have been gathered across the mountain venues.

Markov's venue alone has access to hundreds of thousands of feet of snow — some of it harvested from other parts of the mountain range and some it artificially made — all stored under giant tarps that reflect the sun's warmth.

"We remembered the experience from Vancouver," Markov said, referring to the 2010 Winter Games when helicopters were pressed into service at the eleventh hour to prepare some snow-less slopes. "We will be ready."

Higher up the mountain, at the base of the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center, the site of Alpine ski events, venue manager Alexander Belokobylsky is armed with 400 snow guns and four pumping stations just in case the weather does not cooperate.

"We have here the biggest artificial snow-making operation in Europe,'' Belokobylsky said.


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