Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday called for controversial Olympic facilities planned for Sochi to be relocated, saying ecological concerns were more important than expense, Russian news agencies said.
The southern Russian resort city was chosen last year to host the 2014 Winter Games, despite environmentalists' complaints that some planned construction would damage the region's complex ecology.
But Putin, in a meeting in Sochi with environmentalists and games construction officials - called for some of the facilities - the bobsled track and the athletes' village for snow sports - to be relocated to other sites in consultation with the International Olympic Committee, according to news agencies.
"In determining priorities - money or ecology - we choose ecology," Putin was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. "If the balance of nature is upset, this could lead to a situation that would be impossible to restore for any money."
Both the bobsled track and the athletes' village were planned for the undeveloped Grushevy Ridge, adjacent to a nature reserve. Along with the possible damage to the pristine area, environmentalists also warned the track would obstruct animal foraging tracks.
Such a major change in plans was likely to raise already-high concerns about the massive amount of construction needed for the Olympics. The Sochi region, although a popular resort for Russians, has poor infrastructure and underdeveloped sports facilities.
Putin asked Olympics construction chief Viktor Kolodyazhny whether changing the sites would throw off the construction timetable, and Kolodyazhny said "we will try" to keep on schedule, according to ITAR-Tass.
"'We will try' - that's not an answer," Putin responded.
Russia as a whole, and Putin in particular, have significant prestige riding on the games - the first winter Olympics the country has held, even though it has been a major force in winter sports.
International Olympic Committee assessors were concerned about the huge amount of construction needed - including all ice-sport venues, two athletes' villages and a light-rail system connecting the seaside ice venues with the snow-sport facilities some 30 miles (50 kilometers) away in the rugged Caucasus Mountains.
Putin's appearance at the Olympic committee meeting that chose the winning bid - in which he gave an address in English for the first time - was seen as key to the bid's success. He was Russian president at that time.
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