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Russia plans 'green' winter Olympics

By Matthew Chance, CNN
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Russia wants 'greenest' games
  • Russia to host the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi in Russian Caucasus
  • Organizers will have to build the facilities almost from scratch
  • Environmentalists raise concerns that wildlife and ecosystem will be damaged
  • Winter Olympics
  • Russia

Moscow, Russia (CNN) -- It's meant as the crowning glory of Russia's post-soviet revival: in 2014 the winter Olympics will be held here, in the pristine mountains of Sochi in Russia's Caucasus.

But turning the wilderness into a world-class sporting destination is proving a huge environmental challenge -- almost everything has to be constructed new, from roads to hotels, to ski lifts.

Russian officials admit their plan to build virtually the entire infrastructure from scratch is ambitious, even by Olympic standards.

Efim Bitenev, a member of the Sochi Olympic committee told CNN: "The idea is not to turn it into a sport resort, but to make Sochi a destination for business travelers, as most of the venues that will be built on the coastal cluster of our project, will be used for, for example, as exposition facilities."

There will be an environmental impact, but officials say efforts are being made to minimize it. Already, venues like the bob sleigh run have been relocated to avoid sensitive areas, with rare flora and fauna. And the wood being used in construction is said to be from sustainable sources.

Organizers of the Sochi Olympics, say they want these to be the greenest, most environmentally aware games ever staged.

But already there are serious doubts that target can be achieved. Environmentalists say they are increasingly concerned about the damage that's being caused to this pristine area.

Campaigners say their warnings are only now starting to be heard.

Igor Chestin, director of the World Wildlife Fund in Russia told CNN:

"It was difficult at the beginning. For about two years, we couldn't establish a dialogue. But I think for the last year, this dialogue has been in place, and we are working closely with both private investors and the state corporations."

The organizers say they want these Olympics to be the most environmentally sound, the greenest Olympics ever. Does Chestin buy into their promises?

"Well, I think we are on the way. We did manage to ensure some of the precautionary measures relating to the wildlife."

Of course, it's nearly five years until the 2014 Olympics, but billions of dollars are already being spent on making the facilities fantastic, and on making what Russia hopes will be an extremely memorable winter Olympics here.

Memorable for sporting achievements, not for the impact the Olympics may have on this region's fragile environment.