Utahns may not know much about the Soviet city competing with Salt Lake City to host the 1998 Winter Games, but a member of the International Olympic Committee from the USSR said Sochi is his country's most popular summer resort.
During a brief break Thursday in his tour of the U.S. contender for the upcoming Olympics, Vitaly Smirnov of the USSR Olympic Committee, acknowledged that Sochi is a long shot to win the Winter Games."We are realists. We understand in this political and economic situation we don't have much chance to get the Olympic Games. But people in Sochi are enthusiastic," Smirnov said.
Besides Salt Lake City and Sochi, other cities in the running are Aosta, Italy; Oestersund, Sweden; Jaca, Spain; and the frontrunner, Nagano, Japan. The choice will be made by Smirnov and the 93 other members of the IOC in June.
Some 4.5 million Soviets travel each summer to Sochi, which is located in the southwestern corner of the Soviet Union on the shores of the Black Sea near the Caucasus Mountains.
Before the revolution that led to the Russian monarchy being replaced with communism, Sochi was where czars came to hunt for bears, elk, bison and other game.
Today, Sochi is known for its beaches, which permit topless sunbathing. But the city has not yet developed skiing facilities in the nearby mountains to attract winter visitors.
"The ski resort is absolutely undeveloped. This is a big disadvantage," Smirnov said. "If we have the Olympic Games, I think Sochi could become the most famous ski resort in the European part of the world."
Like the 36 other IOC members who have visited Salt Lake, Smirnov declined to be specific about the city's chances. And like most of his counterparts, Smirnov praised the attitude of Utahns toward hosting an Olympics.
"What I've heard from simple people on the streets and in the hotel is that they want to have the Olympic Games," he said. "You can't change the spirit if people are against it. That is very important to have."
Smirnov headed the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, which were boycotted by the United States and other countries in response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.
"It's another story," he said, describing the decision by President Carter to stop U.S. athletes from competing in the Olympics as a "political statement" that did not involve the sports community.
That year, only half of the 12,000 athletes expected competed in Moscow. "You can imagine our feelings when the table is ready but the guests are not coming," he said.
Soviet strife may once again affect who participates in the Olympics. Athletes from some of the Baltic republics struggling to break from Soviet control may not be allowed to represent the USSR.
"We have some problems in my country now," Smirnov said, adding that the Moscow experience has helped him realize "how important it is to stay together."