What does $51B "buy you in a Black Sea subtropical resort these days?" A "heap of trouble, if the preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are anything to go by," according to Owen Gibson of the London GUARDIAN. With 120 days to go until the opening ceremony, "around half that sum is alleged to have disappeared in corrupt building contracts." At the same time, human rights concerns are mounting and global controversy caused by Russia's new laws forbidding "gay propaganda" refuses to go away. Russia's Deputy PM Dmitry Kozak spoke of the "difficult road" that organizers had traveled "since the Games were awarded to Sochi following a dramatic last-ditch intervention" from President Vladimir Putin in '07. Kozak "clearly has a gift for understatement." While it has become traditional to list the myriad concerns facing Olympic organizers before an event then to hail it as a triumph afterwards, "Sochi is setting a new bar." Opposition figures Leonid Martynyuk and Boris Nemtsov claimed in a May report that up to $30B of the budget had gone missing in "kickbacks and embezzlement" to close associates of Putin, claiming the Games had turned into a "monstrous scam." An 18-mile road between Sochi, where events such as hockey, speed skating and figure skating will be held, and the mountain sports cluster of Krasnaya Polyana "has become a symbol of the huge cost increases," spiralling to a reported $8.6B. Nemtsov said in July, "You could have paved this road with five million tons of gold or caviar and the price would have been the same." Then "there are concerns over human rights and freedom of expression that extend to Russia as a whole but will be highlighted more than ever in the runup to the Games." Meanwhile, Amnesty Int'l "has already voiced concerns over Putin's recent crackdown on freedom of expression, best exemplified by the Pussy Riot case." It emerged last week that "Russian authorities planned to limit public demonstrations and access to neighbouring territories during the Games" (GUARDIAN, 10/9).
PUTIN'S PRIDE: REUTERS' Heritage & Shemetov wrote "Putin has staked his personal and political prestige on February's Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi," yet despite the $50B price tag "the Games could still be an embarrassing flop." If all goes to plan, "the costliest Games in history will be a showcase for Russia's achievements under Putin, the vindication of a six-year vanity project on a truly Soviet scale." But his dream could yet be shattered: "if venues on the subtropical Black Sea are not ready on time; if protests break out over a new Russian law that critics say targets gay rights; if Chechen or other Islamist militants attack the Games." Four months before the Games open on Feb. 7, "cranes still tower over muddy construction sites, freshly laid pipes lie exposed to the weather and walkways are churned up around them." At ski resorts above the seaside city, "huge segments of metal piping and cable lie strewn around near hotels." The blow to Putin's pride and political standing "would be immense if the Games fail because he has invested so much personally in what some see as the folly of turning a palm-lined summer beach resort into a 21st-century winter sports hub." Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee President Dmitry Chernyshenko said, "He considers this project his baby" (REUTERS, 10/9).