No one at the Georgian Olympic Committee headquarters denies that Borjomi, a sleepy town of about 16,000 in the region of Samtskhe-Javakheti that is best known for its mineral water, faces stiff, if not impossible, competition. Seven cities are competing to be named candidates to host the 2014 Winter Games, including the renowned Austrian ski resort town of Salzburg. Aside from Georgia, two other towns from the former Soviet Union are also competing for the Games: Almaty, Kazakhstan; and the Russian Black Sea resort town of Sochi. Other cities include Pyeongchang, South Korea; Jaca, Spain; and Sofia, Bulgaria. Final-round candidate cities will be named in June.
Nonetheless, Georgian optimism runs strong. The odds to host the Olympics are in Georgia's favor in the long run, argued Audrius Butkevichious, coordinator of the Borjomi 2014 project. "If you look at history, no country has become a host for the games the first time [it entered the competition]. For us, it is a beginning," he said. "In this way, we will show ourselves what we need to do and we will show others what we have."
According to Badri Patarkatsishvili, president of the Georgian Olympic Committee, the 2014 bid is a natural extension of Georgia's recent economic and political development. In an interview published on the Borjomi2014.ge site, Patarkatsishvili noted that the Olympics are a "natural step" as the country "strives" to take its "due place" in the world community.
The official Borjomi 2014 site goes one step further, tying the country's Olympic aspirations to Georgia's attempt to "regain" the national identity it allegedly lost as part of the Soviet Union.
The bid has taken on political significance as well. When President Mikheil Saakashvili announced the Georgian bid for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games last June, he embraced the international sporting event as a forum for conflict resolution and peacebuilding.
While eliminating Georgia's tensions with breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia might seem a tall order for any sporting event, Butkevichious maintains that the Olympics could foster some form of ethnic reconciliation. "The Olympic Games are based on peace," he said. "The country must be prepared for the peaceful way [of resolving conflicts]. And maybe this can also work to develop other political consciences."
Another question is how to upgrade Borjomi's infrastructure to handle such a mega-sized contest. A June 2005 analysis by the monthly magazine Ski Press World found that while Georgia has the political will and financial resources to host the Olympics, the country has practically no infrastructure to support the Games.
According to media reports, the government puts the cost for connecting Tbilisi's airport to the Olympic site and making necessary improvements to infrastructure at $3 billion. Where those billions will be found has not been decided, however, said Natia Magradze, a press secretary for the Borjomi office of the Olympic Committee. To date, she said, most financing has come from private businesses.
Butkevichious admitted that the Georgian government does not have the resources to fund the Games, but stressed that private donors are committed to the project. "You know that the government did not have enough money, but we have a community, a society of quite rich people," he said, noting that many of the donors see the Olympics as a patriotic endeavor, rather than as a business project.
Business tycoon Gogi Topadze, a member of the Georgian Olympic Committee and president of the Georgian Winter Sports Federation, agreed the country has a lot to do before it can host the Games, but insists that foreign investors are interested in Georgia's bid. "There are a lot of investing companies that are already interested in land French companies, German companies, Russian companies. So once we have the master plan we will show them what we want built where," he said. Topadze stated that "the biggest" German and Swiss consultants are handling the preparation of such a plan for Bakuriani, a nearby Soviet-era ski resort that would host most of the Games' events, but declined to provide names.
Topadze's beverage company, Kazbegi, is already building three hotels in neighboring Bakuriani and plans to build more. The company has also constructed one gondola-style ski lift in Bakuriani, opened earlier this year by President Mikheil Saakashvili. In Borjomi, the firm has constructed a park and gondola-style funicular for the bluffs that surround Borjomi Valley.
Topadze, however, still looks to the government to provide some assistance. A "serious amount "of the financing will have to come from the state budget, he said, although declined to go into specifics. With that support in place, much could be accomplished over the next three to four years to upgrade facilities at Borjomi and Bakuriani, he said.
As do other Georgian businesspeople, Topadze seems to see the Olympic bid as part of a larger business development plan for Georgia. "There are about 80 million European skiers and European ski resorts can hold 25-28 million [people]," he said. "So we, while oriented on the Olympics, plan to very seriously develop winter tourism, mountain tourism. I think it will be very profitable."
Butkevichious agreed, describing Georgia's Olympic bid as a way to introduce the world to Borjomi and its potential for international sports. "The official goal is to win the prize, to become a hosting country for the Winter Olympic Games. But a much more important goal is to understand what we need to build here if we want to be in an equal position with others," he said.
Georgia as host to an Olympics would provide hope to other developing countries who now "believe the Olympics are just for developed countries," commented Paata Natsulishvili, a manager on the Borjomi project committee.
Aside from the Kazbegi improvements and a spike in demand for guesthouse properties, though, little of these changes have yet been seen in either Borjomi or Bakuriani, both beset by the usual problems of rural Georgia -- sporadic electricity supplies, decrepit roads and limited telecommunications and commerce. Nonetheless, Bakuriani Mayor Valiko Abramashvili is optimistic that everything can be accomplished on time for 2014.
"Bakuriani has had many championships, tourists also came here. We have a lot of trampolines and ski runs. We have all the services to hold the Olympics here," he said. "We just need to move our hands a little bit and everything will be fine for the Olympics."
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Tbilisi.