Sochi races to Olympic finish one year before Games

One year before Russia kicks off the 22nd Winter Olympic Games on February 7, 2014, its host city Sochi is one of the world's biggest construction sites, with works proceeding on schedule but declared a disaster by environmentalists.

About 60,000 construction workers are on a 24-hour clock ensuring that new venues and transportation infrastructure are built on time in the city of 400,000 people wedged between the Black Sea and the majestic Caucasus range in southern Russia.

"At the moment we are in great shape, we are delivering in accordance to our ambitious plans," the head of the Sochi organising committee Dmitry Chernyshenko told AFP in an interview.

Six thousand athletes and other national team members from over 80 countries will line up to compete in 98 different disciplines next February -- a far cry from just 250 athletes and 24 disciplines of the first Winter Games in 1924 in Chamonix, France.

Six new Olympic sport events will be added in Sochi to old standards such as skiing, ice-skating, and hockey: women's ski jumping, mixed relay biathlon, ski half-pipe for men and women, team relay luge, and the figure skating team event.

First tests will be held in March at the Bolshoi (Great) ice palace, one of the venues in the Olympic park that stretches along the Black Sea in south Sochi.

Nearby, the Shayba (Puck) hockey arena and curling centre are finished, while the main 40,000-seat Olympic stadium is scheduled to be complete by summer.

The ice palace will behold a grand ceremony next Thursday marking one year before the Games open, an event expected to be attended by IOC President Jacques Rogge and Russia's top leadership.

About 44 different competitions, both Russian and international, will be held in Sochi over the coming year, rehearsing for the sports extravaganza, Russia's first Olympic Games since the fall of the Soviet Union.

-- 'Destroying the North Caucasus ecosystem' --

Revamping Soviet infrastructure to meet the demands of a world class event, Russia invested heavily into transportation routes, notably a complex 46-kilometre (29-mile) mountain road and rail connection between the venues in Krasnaya Polyana above Sochi and the Olympic village on the Black Sea shore.

Russia's authorities have also pointed to Sochi's venues as future locations for football's 2018 World Cup and the Formula One race in late 2014.

Chernyshenko of the Sochi Olympic Committee promised that despite the colossal impact of new roads, tunnels and bridges on the local landscape, Sochi will host a "green Games" and even "dramatically enhance... the environmental situation".

But Russia's environmentalists have cried foul, with key organisations opting out of the process of monitoring Olympic construction, arguing that their input has been ignored by developers and decision makers.

"The preparation for the Olympic Games continues to destroy the ecosystem of the North Caucasus," said Mikhail Kreindlin, an expert with Greenpeace Russia, accusing the Russian authorities of passing relevant legislation to "legalise" construction in protected areas in the mountains above Sochi.

Preparations also required moving locals out of the way of the vast Olympic footprint, and human rights activists have called the process untransparent and arbitrary.

"Most homeowners received compensation, but in many cases amounts were unfair and the process was opaque," Human Rights Watch said last week in its annual report on Russia.

In some cases, people did not receive any compensation at all, and in others their properties were not fairly evaluated, said Yulia Gorbunova, a researcher at the organisation.

Central Sochi resident Evgeny Mzokov lived in a two-level house along with two other families. In September, the building was razed to the ground just a day after a local court gave final approval to evict him. Masked men broke down his door and dragged residents out. He has received no money in return, he told AFP.

While the Sochi organising committee continues to give the figure of 200 million rubles ($6.6 billion) as the total preparation expenses, Russia's Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko on Friday quoted a much higher sum of 1.5 trillion rubles ($50 billion) as the "official figure".

About $2 billion will be directed toward ensuring security at the event, which will be set close to Russia's turbulent North Caucasus and just across the border from Georgia's rebel region of Abkhazia.