Alpine test for 2014 Sochi Games called a success
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP)
The first major test event for the 2014 Sochi Olympics was hailed as a success. Construction for the games may be behind schedule elsewhere, but the Alpine skiing venue is ready.
''We could already have the Olympic Alpine events next week here with this organizing structure,'' men's World Cup director Gunter Hujara said during this weekend's downhill and super-combined races. ''The hill is ready. There are some (adaptations) we can make but for a test race you always have to find out whether it's too straight, too turny, too hard, too soft or whatever.''
Indeed, the only major complaints from athletes was that the Rosa Khutor course contained too many turns to be considered a true downhill.
As usual, Bode Miller led the revolt. The American standout said repeatedly how great the mountain is, but that organizers need to straighten out the course set.
''Hopefully they'll learn how to use this terrain and make something special,'' Miller said. ''The venue, the mountain is world class. It's as nice as any of the places we ever go and it's going to be amazing to host the Olympics here.
''I hope they really do as good a job they can, because the Olympics is such a perfect opportunity to showcase a venue, an area, a culture and a country and I think Russia right now is very due for that.''
While Hujara lost his cool at one point over all the course-set criticism, he will seek improvements for 2014.
''Sure we will change things. We will adapt,'' Hujara said. ''We will change the course-set.''
Down in the valley, Rosa Khutor is evolving quickly from a small village into a massive resort lining a tributary of the Mzymta river. This week, athletes stayed in the only two hotels finished thus far. No restaurants or shops are open yet, but more hotels, stores and eateries are being built by the dozens.
For now, it's mostly concrete shells of buildings, with black holes in place of windows. But it's easy to see what the town will eventually be. Artist renderings hanging on construction fences depict a modern Alpine village with people strolling past busy cafes and shops in multicolored buildings.
''I didn't expect to drive up the valley and see Las Vegas in the mountains,'' said Canadian skier Ben Thomsen, who finished second behind Swiss winner Beat Feuz in Saturday's downhill.
Overall World Cup leader Ivica Kostelic won Sunday's super-combi.
Further down the road toward Sochi, the construction situation is more dramatic. Both a rail link and a modern highway are being built to connect the coast and airport with the Alpine venues. Along with completely new venues for each sport, these Olympics will require more construction than any previous Winter Games.
It's being called Europe's biggest construction project.
Building is also in a frenzy down at the coastal venue center near the airport in Adler. There, all the venues are situated in a circle in an Olympic park that will have the feel of recent Summer Games - albeit with a bitter winter wind blowing in off the Black Sea.
The coastal park also includes the main Olympic Village and stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies, which will then be used for the 2018 soccer World Cup.
Back in the Alpine area, another Olympic Village is being built for skiers halfway up the mountain - near the mid-station between the first and second gondolas.
''All the athletes will be very near to the slopes,'' said Austrian Alpine director Hans Pum. ''It's going to be a perfect Olympics.''
However, fans and media will have a longer climb to the Alpine venue. For now, the only way to get there is by taking two gondolas up and then a windy chairlift down to the finish area that will scare anyone afraid of heights, or a slow, stomach-churning drive up a twisty and turny road that will make your ears pop.
Security is already tight, as Sochi is located along the Georgia border and the North Caucasus, the part of Russia that is a patchwork of mostly Muslim republics, including Chechnya, where Islamic militancy still thrives.
Giant slalom world champion Ted Ligety got a surprise when he went off course for some powder skiing Saturday - a soldier carrying a machine gun stopped him.
''Up on the start yesterday there was military personnel. That's a little unusual - sniper and automatic rifles up there - we don't see that every day,'' said two-time overall World Cup champion Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway.
Women's World Cup skiers arrive Tuesday for their test event, and the International Olympic Committee is holding its bi-yearly coordination committee visit this week as well.
For now, the slopes are off limits to the public. But organizers are hoping this area eventually becomes a major ski destination for Russians and foreigners alike.
''We have 23 countries represented here and journalists from 60 countries and we're trying to show the world something different,'' Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko said.
Vladimir Potanin, a billionaire businessman who is building the Alpine venues, said that $2.3 billion have been invested in the Alpine venue areas, and it's clear that organizers are hoping events like World Cup skiing return after 2014.
''Of course we have been thinking about that, but it's not up to us to decide, it's up to the FIS (International Ski Federation),'' Mutko said in comments translated from Russian. ''Until now, the World Cup has always been held in the best resorts and we of course would like to belong in that position. Hopefully we will do everything we can to make sure this becomes the case in the future.''