Sochi Olympic preparations under fire

Economists in Russia and abroad say that the construction of the Olympic facilities is falling behind schedule, and that costs are spiralling out of control. Source: ITAR-TASS

Economists in Russia and abroad say that the construction of the Olympic facilities is falling behind schedule, and that costs are spiralling out of control. Source: ITAR-TASS

Eerily similar to the rants against New Delhi before the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the organizers of the 2014 Winter Olympics have been at the receiving end of an earful of criticism.

With less than a year remaining until the opening of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the organizers are coming under mounting criticism. Journalists, politicians, human rights groups and economists in Russia and abroad say that the construction of the Olympic facilities is falling behind schedule, and that costs are spiralling out of control. Some are even questioning whether Russia was indeed the right choice to host the games. 

In early February President Vladimir Putin travelled to Sochi to inspect the Olympic venues, and voiced quite a few criticisms against the organizers. In particular, he was angered by the fact that the Russkiye Gorki ski jumping facility is now over 18 months behind schedule. To make matters worse, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak reported to the president that the cost of the project had rocketed from the initial 1.2 billion roubles (40 million dollars) to 8 billion. Blame for the debacle was laid at the door of Akhmed Bilalov, vice president of the Russian Olympic Committee, who has since resigned. 

Olympic preparations have also drawn criticism from the environmentalists. They say that the construction of new sports facilities in and around Sochi has caused irreparable damage to the environment. “These projects have devastated unique natural habitats of rare species of plants and animals in the Sochi National Park, and more harm is being done every day," says the Russian office of the World Wildlife Fund. 

Rights groups have also voiced their concerns. The Human Rights Watch has said in a recent report that labour migrants employed in the construction of Olympic facilities are not being paid on time, and that the employers are holding back part of their wages. 

Looking back at the history of preparations for all the previous summer and winter Olympics, it becomes clear, however, that such criticisms are the rule rather than an exception. Nevertheless, in almost every single case the organizers eventually managed to get their act together and hold the planet’s main sporting event to very decent standards, no matter how worrying the situation may have looked in the run-up to the Games. 

A case in point is the 2004 summer Olympics in Athens. Four years ahead of the event the International Olympic Committee expressed its concern over the new Greek sports facilities falling behind schedule. As a result, Greece was forced to set up a new Athens 2004 organizational committee. With only a few months remaining until the opening ceremony, many venues were sitting unfinished amid piles of rubbish. The stadium which hosted the opening and closing ceremonies opened only two months ahead of the Games. Nevertheless, the Games themselves went without a hitch. 

Very different complaints were being voiced ahead of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Politicians and NGOs around the world criticized the IOC's choice of the host country, accusing Beijing of serious human rights violations. Two separate resolutions were introduced in the U.S. Congress calling for an official boycott of the 2008 Olympics over the human rights situation in China. 

Nevertheless – and despite unusually hot weather during the Games – the Beijing Olympics was later lauded as arguably the best Games ever in terms of organization, quality of the Olympic facilities, and the memorable opening and closing ceremonies. 

“The IOC is extremely happy with the organization of the Games. The Organizational Committee of the Beijing Olympics has done its best to put the athletes at the centre of the Games. The Olympic facilities were excellent, and all the support services worked with clockwork precision,” Rogge said after the games. 

As for the previous Winter Olympics, let us recall that ahead of the 2006 Games in Turin the organizational committee was facing the prospect of being shut down because the Italian government was not providing adequate financing. During the Games themselves there were serious problems with transport. It would sometimes take athletes and journalists four or five hours to reach the Olympic venues from the city itself, changing several trains or busses along the way, and the narrow main road between the city and the venues was constantly clogged with traffic. 

“As an athlete, I have nothing to complain about – but most of the coaches, journalists and spectators I have spoken to agree that the Turin Olympics was very poorly organized,” said Pavel Rostovtsev, who won silver in biathlon at the 2006 Games. Speaking in an interview with the REGNUM news agency, he added that the complaints were mostly about housing and transport. “Many believe that of the previous five winter Olympics, Turin was the worst,” Rostovtsev said. 

The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver was off to an even worse start. Nodar Kumaritashvili, a Georgian luger, suffered a fatal crash on an extremely dangerous curve during a training run on the opening day. He was thrown off his luge and over the sidewall of the track, smashing head-first into a concrete support pillar. He died an hour later without regaining consciousness. The opening ceremony began with a minute of silence. 

In the 20th century, various games ran into even greater problems. Dozens of countries boycotted the 1980s Olympics in Moscow and the Los Angeles Games in 1984 for political reasons, and the Munich Games in 1972 saw a deadly terrorist attack. Nevertheless, the only two events that have ever managed to disrupt the Games entirely were the two world wars. 

In Russia, the Olympics have long been an especially sensitive matter. Many still remember the boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow, as well as attempts to use the 2014 Olympics as an instrument of political pressure on our country. The Western media often give prominence to calls for using this extremely important international sporting event to extract concessions from Moscow in other areas. There is very little chance, however, of these calls producing the desired outcome. 

Several IOC members say that for now, the most impressive aspect of the preparations for the 2014 Games in Sochi is the organizers’ strong emphasis of security measures to protect the athletes as well as spectators. On the whole, no-one at the IOC has any doubts that the organizational committee will overcome all the difficulties, and that the Games will be held to a very high standard. 

“We did not choose Sochi became it is a Russian city,” Jacques Rogge has said in an interview with RBHT. “We chose it because it was the best choice. The athletes will be extremely comfortable here. I am confident that the 2014 Winter Olympics will be a great success."

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