Russia's Black Sea tourist capital of Sochi has won its longshot bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, a decision that sent Russians cheering and dancing in the streets when it was announced Thursday.
Sochi beat out the Austrian mountain resort of Salzburg and edged South Korea's Pyeongchang by 51 votes to 47 in the final tally at the International Olympic Committee meeting in Guatamala, to win the coveted honour of hosting the quadrennial Games.
<b1>Experts say the tide may have been turned in Sochi's favour after President Vladimir Putin, speaking publicly in English for the first time ever, personally pledged to the IOC that the Russian government would ensure the city is made ready to host the event.
"Winter sports are popular in Russia and our sportsmen have won many competitions and have made a big contribution to the Olympic movement. But we have never won the honor to celebrate the Winter Olympic Games," Putin said in English.
"We are sure Sochi will be the best choice."
Moscow has promised to invest $12-billion to rebuild Sochi's infrastructure and construct two Olympic villages to house athletes and guests at the Games.
Sochi, a Black Sea town of about 400,000 in Russia's only sub-tropical climate zone, was a famous Soviet-era beach resort centre. Excellent ski slopes in the soaring Caucasus Mountains, such as Putin's favourite winter vacation spot of Krasnaya Polyana, are within an hour's drive of the town.
But Sochi has seen hard times since the USSR's collapse. Civil wars in nearby Georgia and the breakaway Russian territory of Chechnya prompted even some Russians to abandon the region in the 1990's. Crime, corruption and other post-Soviet ills led most travellers to shun the place.
Officials hope the Olympics will revive Sochi's tourist appeal, and that the huge inflow of state funds will lift the region's economy out of the doldrums.
Experts say the decision comes as a welcome public relations victory for Putin, who has lately been locked in acrimonious disputes with the US over big political issues like Kosovo, ballistic missile defence and Russia's alleged authoritarian drift.
"We see this as a vote of confidence in the new Russia, in Putin's Russia," says a political scientist. "It is to be hoped that people will stop looking at Russia as some kind of neo-Soviet menace and see it as a fun place, a modern and growing part of the world community, the kind of place where you'd want to hold the Olympics."