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A Letter From Sochi

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I'm writing this from the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which is the warmest city in Russia and will also be the venue for the Winter Olympics next February.

Crazy, huh? Why choose a place that even in December boasts bright sunshine and temperatures well above zero? Well, if you turn your back on the Black Sea, you'll find yourself gazing up at the jagged, snow-covered peaks of the Caucasus mountains - and that's where the skiers and jumpers will be heading in just seven weeks' time.

So not so crazy, after all. Except for the price tag: something around $50billion, which will make the Sochi Games the most expensive Olympics ever held. By comparison, the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing - and the summer Games are always much bigger than the winter ones - cost a mere $43billion, the 2012 London games came in at a paltry $14billion, and the 2010 winter Games in Vancouver cost a bargain basement $9billion.

In other words, like for like, Sochi 2014 will be more than five times as expensive as Vancouver 2010. According to the Russian government, it's because the money has been used for massive investment in new infrastructure projects. According to critics, it's because more than half of the eye-watering total cost has gone in bribes and kick-backs.

Sochi has been a popular Russian summer holiday resort ever since Stalin built vast State-owned sanitoriums for Soviet workers here back in the 1930s. Now, President Putin wants to turn it into a winter resort as well - and what Mr Putin wants, Mr Putin tends to get.

Make no mistake: the Sochi Games are Project Putin. The president is a keen skier and he has long been a fan of the Sochi slopes. He has invested a huge amount of personal prestige in these Games, which is why everyone expects that they'll be a huge success. If they fail, Mr Putin fails. And the Russian president doesn't do failure.

A couple of days ago, I was taken on a tour of some of the Olympic venues. They are truly impressive, not least the vast new winter sports centre at Krasnaya Polyana, where giant hotels and apartment complexes have sprung up almost overnight to host the Olympic visitors.

But who will use them once the Games are over? It's the legacy question again, as it is after every Olympic event - and the Russians insist that Sochi is about to become a major international winter sports resort, competing with Switzerland, France and Italy for high-spending guests.

We shall see. Meanwhile, down on the Black Sea shoreline, 76-year-old Alla Nikolaichik says the Olympics have ruined her life. The modest, Soviet-era home she's lived in for the past 50 years was ear-marked for demolition to make way for an Olympic-related housing complex - and although the plans have since been abandoned, she says the continuing uncertainty has made her life a misery. When I asked her to describe her feelings about the Games, she exploded in anger.

Maria Reniova of the National Geographic Society is angry too. She says the Olympic planners have ignored the concerns of environmentalists, and destroyed valuable habitats for rare species of birds and plants. The organisers, on the other hand, insist that they have gone out of their way to safeguard the environment. Andrei Markov of the Sochi 2014 organising committee, who runs the biathlon centre up in the mountains, told me that for every tree they cut down, they planted another one.

Nothing in Russia is uncontroversial. Can Russia afford the $50billion price tag? Are the Sochi Games the most extreme example to date of Presidential vanity? Or are they an ambitious attempt to create a genuine new winter sports attraction, which long after the 2014 Games have faded away will act as a magnet for both domestic and international investment?

My report from Sochi is due to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at the end of January.

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