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211 211 12.10.2010

LONDON — With a little over three years until the opening ceremony, International Olympic Committee officials are heading back to Russia for a check on preparations for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

The IOC's coordination commission will be in the Black Sea resort for a three-day visit starting Tuesday to review the state of venue construction, funding, environmental safeguards, security and other issues.

It's the fourth time the IOC panel has visited Sochi since Russia was awarded its first Winter Olympics in 2007. Organizers are building virtually all venues from scratch in one of the biggest construction projects in Europe.

"We're well on track not only in construction, where we are even ahead in some areas, but also on time and on budget," Sochi organizing committee head Dmitry Chernyshenko told The Associated Press by telephone Monday. "We will have plenty of things to submit and share with the IOC."

The IOC team will tour the Olympic Park, where Chernyshenko said the venues are "going up like mushrooms." The roof of the ice hockey venue is being installed, and the external structure of the figure skating arena is almost complete, he said.

IOC President Jacques Rogge, who was in Sochi in June, said the committee is "definitely happy" with the pace of preparations.

"I saw the progress. You can't believe how well and how fast they build," he told the AP in a recent interview. "We are dealing with a country that is legitimately considered one of the three world powers. You're not discussing with a second-tier country."

The first sports test event for the games will be held in February, a European Cup Alpine skiing competition in the Krasnaya Polyana mountains outside Sochi.

Gian Franco Kasper, head of FIS, the international ski federation, said Sochi organizers are "more or less ready" with the Alpine courses but the cross-country and biathlon venues still have a long way to go.

"Two, three, four years before, you have the feeling that it will never finish," he said. "But the power that Russia has, and also the financial power, that is almost a guarantee that everything will be fine within the years we will have."

The visit also comes as Sochi organizers ramp up efforts to recruit 25,000 volunteers, a major challenge in a country with little tradition of volunteerism. Chernyshenko said the program is now well under way, with a number of volunteers trained last week during a gathering in Sochi of Generations for Peace, an outreach group headed by Prince Faisal Al-Hussein of Jordan.

"We are using the preparation for the games as a catalyst for the volunteer program," Chernyshenko said. "We think the program will snowball."

Sochi has faced criticism on the environmental front, with a recent Russian audit claiming the situation was "close to critical" because of a lack of authorized landfills in the area for waste disposal. Some environmentalists have also protested that the Olympic project could damage the unique landscape of the North Caucasus.

"All the time we are suffering criticism, but we are doing positive things," Chernyshenko said. "We are really committed to protect and enhance the environment. We are ready to respond to any criticism."

Rogge backed Sochi's efforts.

"They are very keen to have as clean a policy as possible in terms of environment," he said. "Building in a mountain area is always prone to have issues in terms of environment. They're doing a good effort and willing to listen to the NGOs and the experts."

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USA Today

AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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