By all accounts — except maybe Vladimir Putin’s — the small Russian resort town of Sochi isn’t ready for the Olympics. In fact, coverage of the preparations has taken on a downright panic-stricken tone. Can Sochi pull it out of the flames? The answer is yes — but at a steep cost.
Last week, we posted images of Sochi’s half-finished Olympic Village and trash-filled streets. Since then, more information has emerged: Only six of nine media hotels are finished, and work is still underway at the Olympic Village and many of the venue sites.
The International Olympic Committee is making daily visits to check up on progress, and reportedly using a helicopter to monitor the building work. Illegal landfills are popping up around the town with devastating environmental effects. The Games are more than $US40 billion over budget, a record by many billions, and the IOC says much of that has been embezzled.
A worker in front of a Sochi hotel. Three of nine media hotels remain unfinished. Image: AP Photo/Gero Breloer.
Of course, if you look back at Olympic Games from the past two decades, you’ll find that delays and budget issues have plagues just about every other host city. But Sochi’s problems seem to be on a scale of their own.
So, How Did This Happen?
First and foremost: corruption. The seeds of Sochi’s lack of preparation were sown years ago, when the contracts for the construction work in Sochi were awarded to Putin cronies and other oligarchs who saw a rich opportunity to profit. One International Olympic Committee member recently reported that as much as a third of Sochi’s budget has been siphoned off in shady dealings.
Other deals seemed to verge on blackmail. “Participating in Sochi is a kind of tax for the oligarchs,” former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov told Der Spiegel. “If you want to continue doing business in Russia, then you have to help Putin.” For example, the massive state-run oil company Gazprom is responsible for $US3 billion worth of construction, from the cross-country skiing and biathlon center, to a third of the Olympic Village, to a massive power plant outside of Sochi.
The Gazprom-built Olympic Village. Via Gazprom.
In fact, there’s even a neat little map called Champions of the Corruption Race that catalogues the political backstory at each Olympic construction site. Perhaps not surprisingly, the state-run companies and billionaires who were handed these lucrative contracts have had trouble delivering. In many cases they simply don’t have the experience to complete massive, fast-tracked venues in a small resort town.
Compounding the problem is Sochi itself. As a small, post-Soviet town, Sochi doesn’t have the infrastructure to support one of the largest construction sites in the world. To make matters worse, its climate isn’t exactly alpine. It’s one of the few cities in Russia with a subtropical climate, and snow isn’t always a certainty. One major reason for the lag in hotel construction — which is deeply, deeply delayed, to the point that many hotel rooms either aren’t finished or don’t have lightbulbs — is a 10-day period of rain last month, which contributed to massively clogged roads.
A hotel construction site. AP Photo/Gero Breloer.
And so the costs and schedules have exploded. Sochi is now the most expensive Olympics ever, at $US51 billion, which is nearly $US40 billion more than Russia’s original budget for the games. It’s also nearly $US40 billion more than the cost of the last winter Olympics, in Vancouver. In fact, the entire cost of the Vancouver Olympics wouldn’t have paid for the road being built to connect venues in Sochi:
The $US8.7 billion road. AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko.
The builder, as it turns out, is Vladimir Yakunin, the head of the national railway and an old friend of Vladimir Putin.
Why It’ll Look Just Fine in Time
Despite the grim scenes that’ve traveled back from Sochi, the odds are that everything will look fine when the Games begin. There are are some 70,000 workers on site, and now that the rain has stopped, crews working around the clock to finish what remains (and tidy the place up). The streets are already being cleared a repaved — just check out the before-and-after photos for proof. Much of the construction in the Olympic Village is prefabricated, which can be assembled in days; the rest is unpacking furniture and installing communal toilets.
In other words, it’s a tall order — but Russia has an army of workers (and billions of dollars) to devote to its completion.
A worker outside of one Sochi hotel. AP Photo/Gero Breloer.
The truth is, every recent Olympics has been plagued by delays, and by panic-hyping reports of unpreparedness. Remember when the IOC issued Greece multiple warnings amid huge delays and security concerns before the Athens Olympics, which The Guardian described as “a theatre of the absurd?” Or when multiple construction workers died building venues leading up to Beijing? Didn’t think so.
Construction continues behind the main stadium at the Extreme Park on February 2. Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images.
The world loves schadenfreude: “[Inset Olympic Host City] is doomed” stories are ubiquitous, and they make the Games themselves all the more exciting. After all, our love affair with the actual competition has dimmed over the past decade of doping and cheating scandals. These days, the triumph (or failure) of the host cities themselves are almost more compelling.
The Hidden Cost
So the question isn’t whether Sochi will finish in time — it will — it’s at what cost.
First, there’s the environmental impact: Despite the fact that Russia claimed the Games would be “zero waste,” the impact on Sochi, a protected wildlife area, has been dramatic. Sections of the National Park have been destroyed. A massive quarry has caused wells to dry up and dust to coat entire villages. Contractors are accused of creating secret, illegal landfills to deal with the construction refuse.
In fact, it’s our old friend Vladimir Yakunin — builder of that $US8.7 billion road — who created this illegal dump, which is accused of contaminating drinking water with toxic runoff:
The Associated Press found that Russia’s state-owned rail monopoly is dumping tons of construction waste into an illegal landfill, raising concerns of possible contamination in the water that directly supplies Sochi. AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky.
And then there are the underpaid (or unpaid) migrant workers who are actually doing the work. Sochi has been flooded with workers from Central Asia over the past four years, and Human Rights Watch has documented millions in unpaid wages, horrific working conditions, and violent abuse.
A worksite where migrant abuse has been foregrounded. AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky
So, no, you shouldn’t look for Sochi to be delayed because of these problems. In all likelihood, the Olympics will go off without a (visible) hitch, and we won’t hear much about it again. At least, not until Russia hosts the World Cup in 2018, or until Rio’s Olympic lead-up really kicks into gear, when the cycle will begin again.
But it’s worth pointing out just how bad of an investment these major sporting events are, for nearly everyone involved. Look no further than the perennial coverage of human rights abuses, huge costs, environmental damage, and construction shenanigans that follow each event in host cities across the globe. The Olympics have plenty of value, sure. But there’s got to be a better way to pull them off.
Lead image: Migrant workers at a construction site in Sochi. AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky.