Anne Jolis: The Putin Olympics

Last time Russia prepared to host the Olympics, Leonid Brezhnev briefly considered canceling the whole thing. Full Story

Since: Oct 08

Toronto, Canada

#1 Nov 3, 2013
Last time Russia prepared to host the Olympics, Leonid Brezhnev briefly considered canceling the whole thing. "Besides the enormous cost," he wrote to party officials in 1975, according to archives since declassified and published in the Russian press, "there may be all sorts of scandals that could tarnish the Soviet Union." In the end Brezhnev needn't have worried. A U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow 1980 Summer Games kept away most prying Western eyes.

Russia these days is much richer, somewhat freer and led by a man who'd apparently rather spend the sum of a small war than cancel a single event of the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, which begin in February. But after six years and the most extreme cost overruns in Olympic history, Vladimir Putin is still waiting for contractors to finish the main stadium and other key infrastructure. Money has been no object: Altogether, Russia's public and private Olympic spending is currently projected at 1.5 trillion rubles ($47 billion), from an initial bid estimate of 313.9 billion rubles.

I visited the Black Sea resort in mid-October to see where the time and money had gone. Sochi remained an Olympic-sized hard-hat zone, but Russian organizers who escorted me through the venues explained that journalists are missing the point when we ask about the most expensive, the most wasteful or even the most corrupt Olympics ever. Better, they suggested, to think of Sochi 2014 as the most successful large-scale construction program in living Russian memory.

My tour began at the Guest House Villa Déjà Vu, about 10 kilometers outside the main Olympic Park, where an Organizing Committee official collected me in a Sochi2014-branded Volkswagen. VOW3.XE +0.67% "Do you understand that seven years ago there was nothing here?" she asked as the car weaved through traffic on half-paved roads, surrounded by cranes and earth movers. "No arenas, no infrastructure—nothing?"

The doe-eyed brunette declined to be quoted by name—only by organization, she instructed, along with most of the other officials on the tour. Hundreds of erstwhile residents would no doubt quibble with her, having been forcibly relocated to make way for beach-side ice rinks.

But her point is clear. Along with 30 new venues directly related to the Games and scores more hotels, transport hubs and medical facilities, the city of fewer than 400,000 people also needed about 1,500 new kilometers of utility networks and communication lines to accommodate the sporting extravaganza. To pull it off without blackouts, the city is more than doubling its grid capacity.

Inside the park we drove by the main stadium, still draped in scaffolding. The stadium is in the "final stages" of construction and will be ready in plenty of time to host the Opening Ceremonies in February, the Organizing Committee official said. However, she added that safety concerns precluded my getting within a 100 meters of it or interviewing the laborers.

Our tour was joined by a representative from Olympstroy, the state company created in 2007 to handle most of the venue work. Since then Olympstroy has gone through three presidents and spawned more than 200 contractors and sub-contractors. In March the Russian Audit Committee flagged that Olympstroy officials had "created the conditions for an unjustified increase in the estimated cost of the sport facilities" to the tune of a half-billion U.S. dollars.

Leading me around the circle of dirt that had yet to be transformed into a medals plaza, the Olympstroy official explained that any suggestions of graft are bogus because "at Olympstroy there is a multi-layered anti-corruption system." And what of the organization's multiple presidents? "The state chose the best people for each phase of the work."

Since: Oct 08

Toronto, Canada

#2 Nov 3, 2013
Entering the Iceberg Skating Palace, a 12,000-seat arena unveiled last year, the Olympstroy official turned to me with an exasperated smile. "This is the first time in history there will be a team event in figure-skating," he said. "That's much more interesting than criminal things." Is it? He continued: While ice rinks usually have only one area for "kiss-and-cry"—the spangled histrionics that help make figure skating such great television—the Iceberg will have "10 kiss-and-cry zones, one for each finalist team."

Asked how these features affected the price tag, the Olympstroy official replied "I don't know how much it cost. I don't even know my own budget." Olympstroy's media team did not address emailed follow-up questions about the latest cost estimates for its venues. But they did send a press kit noting that the Iceberg, billed elsewhere as a "moveable" venue, contains twice as much steel tonnage as the Eiffel Tower.

We moved on to the Bolshoi Ice Dome, another new state-of-the-art arena that's been open all year. There we met venue sports manager Natalya Cherepanova, the only Olympic-related official who agreed to be named for this article. Mr. Putin, who checks in on Sochi regularly, has already attended test events at the Bolshoi and appeared satisfied. After the Games are over and the crowds have left, Ms. Cherepanova enthused, the arena's specially designed maroon-and-grey seating will "give journalists the impression of a full arena, even if it's not full."

A new 264 billion ruble ($8.2 billion), 48-kilometer motor-and-rail road will link the coastal arenas to the Alpine venues in the West Caucasus. For the same price, Russian Esquire worked out, the road could have been paved 4.7 centimeters thick with mink fur. But it will cut travel time between the beach and the slopes to under an hour from 90 minutes—once it opens, supposedly sometime this month.

A press official for Russian Railways, the state monopoly overseeing the project, clarified in an email that the road "is being constructed in an area without any engineering infrastructure," meaning they've had to build 35 kilometers of temporary road to get it done. As for the delays, the rail official compared the Sochi 2014 timeline to 1967, when the Brezhnev Kremlin set out to build 29 kilometers of new rail tunnels between southeastern Siberia and the Tartar Strait. The project was meant to be finished in 1984. In 2003, it was.

The tour ended and the Volkswagen Olympic-mobile dropped me back off at the Déjà Vu. Staffers and drinkers at the guest house pressed for details on the Olympic Park's progress. It's getting there, I told them. Amid the racket of nearby street crews, we agreed that even if $47 billion can't finish the job on time, Mr. Putin will.

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