'No gay rights abuse in Sochi. We’re tolerant to all' - Sochi mayor

The Winter Olympic Games have finally come to Sochi! The city is flooded with guests and athletes. The enormous amount of work put in to holding this extraordinary event will now be put to the test. And as everyone gets ready for the medal race, we caught up with possibly the busiest man in town - the mayor of Sochi.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Mr. Pakhomov, right now, we are being broadcast all over the world – can you tell people why they should just put everything on hold and take the next flight to Sochi?

Anatoly Pakhomov: Because Sochi is an amazing and beautiful resort. Many people were skeptical about having winter Olympics in a subtropical city. But I believe that they are wrong, and that our games are going to be just wonderful. We’ve worked really hard, and Sochi has changed radically over the last five years. People say miracles don’t happen. But this is a real miracle, as we’ve managed to do everything as planned. The city became a very beautiful and comfortable place. We resolved a lot of long-standing problems with infrastructure and logistics. We built new roads, bridges, and tunnels.

SS:I’d like to ask you specifically about the Olympics. As you just mentioned, many were skeptical about snow. What if it suddenly warms up or starts raining and it all melts. What’s the backup plan for the snow?

AP: The great thing about Sochi is that it’s a unique city. Here we are at the seashore - here it’s always really warm. But in Krasnaya Polyana, which is just 46km from here, there’s plenty of fresh powder. So this is very convenient. There’s plenty of snow, and everybody’s comfortable: athletes are comfortable, fans are comfortable. That’s what makes Sochi so unique. That’s why it’s a perfect place for the Olympics. I mean, where else do you have this?

SS: Tell us about what you did. For instance, does the Sochi airport have enough capacity to handle all the visitors?

AP: The airport is actually quite big. We upgraded and modernized it, made it quite nice and convenient. We are prepared for all kinds of scenarios, and now the place is running smoothly. Our volunteers have been very helpful. Our guests are delighted and very happy with their hospitality.

SS: How many tourists have already arrived? More than a million?

AP: No, it hasn’t been over a million yet, but quite a lot already. I guess there will be a million visitors over the entire course of the Olympics. Our hotels can only accommodate 300,000 people at a time. Actually, a bit more than that. A huge number of people are really interested in these Games, and they all will be able to come over and enjoy them.

SS: What about people who know absolutely nothing about the city, will they get help? Are there any tourist information centers, tour guides?

AP: All visitors will be able to get comprehensive information about Sochi. We’ve installed special machines providing automated information in different languages about various places in the city and ways to get to them. Also, volunteers are available to help tourists find their way around the place.

SS: Are there volunteers from Russia only or from other countries as well?

AP: We have foreign volunteers as well. For instance, I just saw volunteers from Germany today. People from other countries came to volunteer too. I believe our guests really appreciate all the help they can get at stations and transport hubs. And there’s a lot to see in Sochi: there’s a lot of interesting places, and I guess it will also be interesting to see how the city looks after the makeover. It must be exciting to see beautiful palm trees in the middle of winter. We have a lot of nice places to visit in addition to Olympic venues.

SS: Yes, it’s certainly beautiful. But do you know what international papers are saying? They are saying that Sochi residents don’t really speak English. Signs are either in Russian or in very poor English. What are you doing about it?

AP: I think Sochi residents have been preparing for this, studying English, and now they can communicate pretty well. Volunteers all speak English, many of the locals speak English, and there is information available in different languages. Some say our taxi drivers don’t speak English. No, our taxi and bus drivers had special training, and they now have basic knowledge of English, enough to make our guests feel comfortable. We can say with certainty that everything will be OK. Sochi residents really worked on their English. I think everything will be all right.

SS: Some countries are issuing warnings for their citizens. For example, the US Department of State has warned Americans against pickpockets and thieves at the Olympics. How would you respond to that?

AP: This will not happen – we can guarantee that, because we have unprecedented security measures in place. When developing our procedures, we prepared for everything. Pickpocketing, muggings just can’t happen. There is no reason to be concerned. It is absolutely safe here, and criminals won’t have a chance, I can guarantee that. We have applied advanced technology: there is a total of 6,000 CCTV cameras installed around the city, 1,400 of them surveying city streets and parks. And police officers are constantly on patrol.

SS: Let me list all the security measures that have been taken in Sochi. A staff of 100, 000 is ensuring the Games’ security. That’s four times more than in London in 2012. They say the security forces include missiles, drones and submarines. This is great, but won’t the visitors to the Games feel like they are at a firing range? Won’t it ruin the atmosphere?

AP: Of course not! Our guests should know that we took unprecedented measures to ensure their safety, but this will not get in the way of their comfort. I can say for sure that they won’t even notice all that. They will feel welcome. Sochi residents are very hospitable people. Sochi is excited to have all these Olympic visitors here. Your concerns have no foundation whatsoever. Our guests will be happy. And they will feel safe.

SS:I have to ask you the questions that our viewers want answers to. The Americans point out that getting medical help in the city might be problematic. There are only 11 hospitals, and apparently all of them are located in remote areas. Is this true? What if something happens, God forbid? Will the city be ready to deal with it?

AP: This is absolutely not true. As far as medical services go, we are 100 percent ready. We have built new hospitals, in Krasnaya Polyana, for example. These are modern facilities with state of the art equipment – MRI, CAT scans, all kinds of labs. Top doctors – some of them local, some came from Moscow. We also have such facilities in the Imeretinsky Valley. There is a hospital in Adler that has surgery and trauma surgery wings, it can provide any kind of medical assistance. We have built a trauma surgery center with 12 operating rooms in Sochi itself. Doctors from Moscow and Krasnodar came to help local staff. So I can assure you – everything is top notch and under control in this area.

SS: The US Department of State also warned that businesses in Sochi do not accept credit cards. What can you say?

AP: This is not true. There are so many ATMs around the city. Like at any Olympics, Visa is the official payment partner. I have not heard of a single incident where somebody had problems with their cards. There have been no complaints whatsoever and I am sure there won’t be any.

SS: Some athletes have been so scared by the reports in Western media that they say they intend only to attend the competitions and go straight back to their accommodation and never go out. Can you say something encouraging, something to relieve their anxiety?

AP: As the mayor of Sochi, I can assure you can be calm and happy. You’ve got nothing to worry about. I can’t understand how anyone could spread these rumors. This is simply not true. We want our guests and athletes to enjoy the scenery. We’ve worked hard to make our city bright and beautiful. While it’s wintertime elsewhere, we’ve got wonderful green palm trees and parks in Sochi. So you most welcome to visit the city and enjoy the hospitality of our residents. On our part, we’ll do our best.

SS: The British say that people of other races may face some difficulties in Sochi. Is it really possible?

AP: No, of course, it’s not true. As you know, we have 124 ethnicities living here in peace, enjoying a relationship of brotherhood and love. Sochi is unique in that sense. We are very friendly and nice and respectful to each other.

SS: Blackouts are reported to be quite common in Sochi. Will they keep happening? Is it possible that, for example, the US delegation will have no electricity one day? And the French will have no water?

AP: We only had blackouts while preparing for the Games, when we had to replace old power lines with new ones. It is only natural when you prepare the city for a large number of visitors. But now preparations are over, and there are no blackouts. And there will be none. Please rest assured that the city is ready for an influx of guests. Everyone will feel comfortable, it’ll be warm and there’ll be enough power for everyone.

SS: We also know that vehicle access will be restricted during the Olympics: only city residents will be free to drive into Sochi, while commercial vehicles that deliver goods for local grocery stores will need a special permit for that. Aren’t you concerned that these restrictions may result in food shortages?

AP: Our vehicle accreditation rules are solely intended to regulate city traffic and, certainly, to ensure security. We have carefully estimated the number of vehicles, and studied every related factor. We have literally accounted for everything, so the city won’t have any shortages. Our businesses are doing a good job today. So this isn’t even an issue.

SS: As far as I understand, street protests will not be outlawed in Sochi for the duration of the Games. Will there be special areas assigned for protests?

AP: Yes, we have selected a special location for street protests. It has been inspected by a human rights commissioner, and by local NGOs, and everyone has approved of it. It is a conveniently placed spot located next to a railway station. So far, we had no requests for protests, but in case anyone should come up with any, we will provide a place.

SS: What about the so-called supervised and controlled areas – what are those? What will happen if someone were to trespass by accident?

AP: Supervised areas are the Olympic event venues. People will need accreditation or tickets to enter into such an area. Naturally, there will be checkpoints at the entrance to ensure security. Those procedures are similar to those they had in 2010 in Vancouver and in London in 2012. There will be nothing excessive or inappropriate about them.

SS: The media have circulated the Spectator Rules for the Olympics. It is obvious why bladed weapons and firecrackers should be banned from sporting venues, but I am perplexed by the ban on bicycles. What’s the point?

AP: Well, why would someone ride a bicycle in a stadium during a sporting event? I think our reasons are obvious: ensuring a convenient environment for athletes and spectators.

SS: Will there be any bicycle venues?

AP: The city has a lot of bike lanes. Sochi has undergone a great deal of transformation – it now has all kinds of facilities. There are unique cycling routes on the embankment near the Olympic Park that are available for public use. So all those willing to enjoy a ride along the shore are welcome to do that. There have been many pedestrian zones created in Sochi – all of them have bike lanes. So I believe Sochi has never been more comfortable for bicycle lovers.

SS: Great. Why is there a ban on street performers? Music creates a festive spirit!

AP: It’s not that it is completely banned – it’s just that there will be certain rules for performers. They can still perform in designated areas. There are a number of them and a lot of Sochi residents as well as the city guests come there.

SS: The Games have kicked off…

AP: We will be delighted to see you there!

SS: …and what should those who failed to buy the tickets do? Where can they get them now?

AP: You can buy the tickets at ticket offices.

SS: And what if all the tickets for the desired sport have been sold out? Is there still a chance for the fans to watch the competition?

AP: Sure! I’ve already mentioned that there are five Live Sites in Sochi that will provide live broadcasts of all the competitions and medal ceremonies. The program will even feature some cultural events. So those who can’t make it to sports venues, have plenty of opportunities to watch the live broadcasts of the competitions at the Live Sites.

SS: [Sberbank chief] German Gref has proposed turning Sochi into a legal gambling area. Would you want Sochi to become Russia’s Las Vegas?

AP: Primarily, I want Sochi to do a very good job hosting the Olympics. As far as the gambling area is concerned, I would say Sochi is more focused on sports and healthy lifestyle than gambling. Anyway, at this point it would be premature to talk about what may happen afterwards. We can think about it later.

SS: Still many people wonder what will happen in the future. Is there a risk that Sochi will be like Sarajevo or Athens where Olympic venues are degrading, hardly used by anyone and are a burden on the city budget?

AP: All the venues have been designed as multi-purpose ones. For instance, the Sochi Media Center where your colleagues now work will be turned into a shopping mall. The nearby skating center will become an exhibition hall later this year. I guess hotels are wondering whether they are going to have enough guests after the Games. Of course there will be a lot guests, because we have a tourism development program, so they will be fine. We are already making plans for 2015, planning events that would attract tourists to Sochi. We want to attract as many people as possible because tourists are our primary source of revenue.

And I want to add something, too – regarding the gay question: we have no problems with gay people here. It’s pretty peaceful. I always say our people are very tolerant. Sochi residents and guests don’t care about other people’s private lives. As long as they don’t impose their lifestyle on others, we are very tolerant and hospitable. Everybody will feel comfortable.

SS:That was Anatoly Pakhomov, mayor of Sochi. Thank you very much for dispelling our fears, and doubts, message is clear - come to Sochi, enjoy the games. Congratulations on this big day, mr. mayor, and we will see you in the next edition of Sophie&Co.