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From Sochi, a message to the world: 'We can do this'

Despite the bad press, some locals in Sochi seem ready to prove the world wrong.

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Day 1 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, Feb. 8, 2014. (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

SOCHI, Russia — They endured years of breakneck construction, critical coverage and, at the last minute, a social media frenzy over the stray dogs and shoddy accommodations that seemed destined to spoil the Olympic spirit.

But some locals here aren’t prepared to give up quite yet. When it comes to the embattled Winter Olympics, they have just one message for the international community: We can do this.

“We’ve been waiting for this for so long,” said Tatyana Scherbina, a 28-year-old Sochi resident. “I think we have already proven to the whole world that we can organize a spectacular international event.”

Friday’s grandiose opening ceremony marked the official start of the most expensive Olympic games in history, a personal project by President Vladimir Putin aimed at showcasing his country’s reemergence onto the world stage.

The run-up to the games, however, had been plagued by criticism from around the world — much of it well deserved — over the massive corruption, environmental damage and widespread fears over security and human rights associated with the event.

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To top it off, holding the Winter Olympics in a provincial, subtropical resort town largely untouched since the collapse of the Soviet Union just seemed like a flat-out bad idea.

But after years of anticipation, locals such as Scherbina — a young, working mother — say they’re determined to put Russia’s best face forward.

Russia, she says, should be respected — and the Olympics have changed all that.

“You can’t just write us off as a third-world country,” Scherbina says.

That’s likely the message at least one top official tried to send earlier this week, after foreign journalists — who arrived to find their accommodations unfinished and in shambles — stirred a social media storm.

On Twitter, the hashtag #sochiproblems exploded, and it seemed like the last straw in a long series of PR disasters that have hampered the country’s international coming out party.

Dmitry Kozak, deputy prime minister in charge of Olympic preparations, would have none of it.

“We have surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the shower, direct the nozzle at the wall and then leave the room for the whole day,” he said during an inspection of the Olympic media center on Thursday, according to the Wall Street Journal. (Kozak's spokesman denied officials were spying on guests.)

To be sure, he could’ve chosen a better reply. But luckily, some locals are tamer in their response to the criticism. Give it a chance, they suggest, and you’ll see things aren’t so bad.

Roman Valerievich, a 30-year-old recent transplant from St. Petersburg, chuckles at suggestions that foreigners should prepare for the worst.

“I caught all of the last-minute construction and watched it progress,” he said, “and I can say that I’m very proud that the Olympics are being held here.”

What would he tell the thousands of fans, visitors and athletes who will swarm this seaside resort during the next two weeks?

“Calm down,” Valerievich says, smiling soothingly, “everything is alright here.”

That easygoing spirit is reflected on the streets of Sochi, which has become flooded with volunteers in their official Olympic threads and young families strolling along seaside promenades and freshly manicured parks.

Here, the security fears and international apprehension over Russia’s controversial ban on gay “propaganda” seem unfounded.

But it is also strange when many — like Zakir Guseinov, an ethnic Azeri who has lived in Sochi for 30 years — say they are well aware of the widespread corruption critics allege helped inflate the cost of the games nearly four times.

Yes, Guseinov says, the construction effort may not have been perfect. And yes, the simmering Islamic insurgency just a few hundred miles to the east remains a constant threat.

He credits Putin with stringing together the massive, $50 billion event, but admits that “you can’t fight every battle.”

But still, he remains positive and relishes the moment.

“Right now, Russia is on top of the world,” Guseinov says.

“Of course, we’ll see," he added. "Maybe we’ll just get to do it again.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/russia/140208/sochi-we-can-do-this