The $51bn Olympics – but where has the money for Sochi 2014 gone?
Less than four months before the Games begin, concerns over corruption as well as human rights remain
A general view of the Olympic village in the mountain ski resort of Rosa Khutor, a venue for the Sochi 2014 winter Olympics, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) east from Sochi. Photograph: Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin (centre), Russian ice-skaters Lina Fyodorova (left), 16, of Moscow and Maksim Miroshkin (2nd left), 19, of Ekaterinburg light an Olympic torch during a ceremony to mark the start of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic torch relay in Moscow on Monday. Photograph: Reuters
What does $51 billion 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.
With 119 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.
And that’s before you get to more prosaic concerns over whether there is going to be enough snow in a resort where temperatures reach 30 degrees in the summer and remain a relatively mild 10 degrees even in February.
Vladimir Putin this week launched the longest torch relay in Olympic history, a 40,000-mile route that will pass through all 83 regions of the country, from Kaliningrad in the west to Chukotka in the east.
At the earlier traditional flame-lighting ceremony in Olympia, Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Kozak, spoke of the “difficult road” that organisers had travelled since the Games were awarded to Sochi following a dramatic last-ditch intervention from Putin in 2007. Kozak clearly has a gift for understatement. While it has become traditional to list the myriad concerns facing Olympic organisers before an event then to hail it as a triumph afterwards, Sochi is setting a new bar.
Putin has long hoped that the twin “mega events” of the Winter Games in 2014 and the football World Cup in 2018 will showcase Russia’s power and – just as was the case for the past three Olympic hosts in Beijing, Vancouver and London – boost its image in the eyes of the world.
So far, it has done little but justify the cynicism of those who characterise the Games as an offering to Mammon rather than embodying the lofty ideals that echoed around the walls of the Hilton Hotel in Buenos Aires when Thomas Bach was elected to succeed Jacques Rogge as the International Olympic Committee’s president last month.
Like the IOC, the organising committee president, Dmitry Chernyshenko, has argued that it is unfair to conflate the money spent on infrastructure with the direct operational cost of the Games. But it is a line that is harder than ever to hold in an area that will struggle to make full use of all the upgrades when it reverts to being a luxury holiday resort after the Games. The initial $12bn (£7.5bn) cost has risen almost five-fold, with critics putting much of the inflation down to the corruption endemic in the Russian construction industry.
The opposition figures Leonid Martynyuk and Boris Nemtsov claimed in a May report that up to $30bn of the budget had gone missing in “kickbacks and embezzlement” to close associates of Putin, claiming the Games had turned into a “monstrous scam”.