A Ski Town Catches Olympic Fever...But The Greens Are Grumpy

About 100 kilometers south of Krakow, along a two-lane road that winds through the Tatra Mountains, the Polish ski haven of Zakopane is bedecked with white flags proclaiming its bid to host the 2006 Winter Olympic Games. No one really expects this city of 30,000 to win out over Sion, Switzerland, or Turin, Italy, when the International Olympic Committee announces its decision on June 19. Instead, Zakopane is employing a strategy similar to Poland's reach for NATO and European Union membership: It may not reach its destination today, but eventually it will stand on the winner's platform. And the plan entails much more than a desire to hoist the Olympic torch. "It's a big chance for the entire region to be reconstructed," says Aleksander Ronikier, vice-president of the Polish Olympic Committee.

Zakopane certainly needs work if it's to join the ranks of world-class resorts. At the moment, only one four-star hotel exists among a total of 14. The majority of the 50,000 guest beds are found in pensions, lodges, and private homes that cater to the more than 3 million tourists who arrive each winter. Even Poles who revere Zakopane for its superb downhill skiing and charming wooden houses agonize over the poor roads and the lack of express trains. When they finally get here, they often face long lines at outdated ski lifts.

But that hasn't cooled Poland's Olympic ambitions. The idea for a bid was born in 1993, when Ronikier helped to bring the World Student Games to Zakopane. At that time, Poland had been free of communism for only four years. Since then, reforms have allowed the country to weather the Russian crisis better than most of the world's emerging markets. Although the Games would cost an estimated $1 billion to host, they're expected to bring in that much income, if not more. Construction and other Olympics-related projects could create 50,000 jobs in the region, where the unemployment rate, at 10.2%, exceeds the 9.5% national average. And another $1 billion in badly needed road, rail, and airport upgrades would be completed much faster if Zakopane won the Games.

Such benefits would extend as far north as Krakow, which would host a number of indoor Olympic events as well as the press center and a secondary Olympic village. City Hall officials believe the Games would help Krakow recover from the former communist regime's treatment of Poland's academic and cultural capital. "We were neglected," says Jerzy Jedlinski, deputy mayor of Krakow. "Therefore, we have to make accelerated progress."

HEAD WEST. Whether Zakopane wins or not, the hoopla surrounding the Olympics bid could be worth many times the $5 million already spent. For now, the town is one of Europe's lesser-known ski spots. Publicity could attract more foreigners--and remind middle-class Poles, who now head west to Austria and Italy for better facilities, of the region's beauty. Gstaad at bargain-basement prices, anyone?

In 1997, the Zakopane city council held a referendum on the Olympics bid. Of the respondents, 82.6% supported hosting the Games, and 79.3% agreed that the effort would aid nature-preservation efforts. Since the bid was submitted to the IOC, however, environmentalists have begun a letter-writing campaign targeting the Games as a threat to the Tatra Mountains. "It's impossible to hold the Games there," says Jerzy Sawicki, head of the Coalition to Save the Carpathian Mountains (which include the Tatras). "They want to destroy the middle of a national park."

A Ski Town Catches Olympic Fever...But the Greens Are Grumpy (int'l edition)

Some of the conflict is rooted in misunderstanding, say officials. A bobsled track rumored to be planned for Tatra National Park is actually intended for Witow, an economically depressed village. But officials are not taking the protest lightly. The Polish Olympic Committee says it would sign an agreement to dedicate $20 million for ecological purposes in the Zakopane region if it can come to terms with Green forces. Such a contribution could help to convert more of the area's heating plants from the coal largely used now to cleaner fuels. "We believe it is possible to find a compromise," says Krakow's Jedlinski. "We would not dare organize the Games without such an agreement."

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