Winter Olympics 2014: Sochi’s day of reckoning has finally come – just don’t look too closely

What kind of Games does £31bn buy you? Robin Scott-Elliot wonders if President Putin should ask for his money back


Here in Sochi, there is plenty on the Russian President’s to-do list as he bustles about town, preparing for the opening of his Olympic Games; stopping off here to give a pep talk to the nation’s athletes, stopping off there to greet another world leader.

The first events begin on Thursday morning. High in the mountains above Sochi, snowboarders will take to the slopes of Rosa Khutor, while down on the shores of the Black Sea the final touches are being added to Friday night’s opening ceremony.

“Russia,” declared President Vladimir Putin, “is ready to host the Games.”

Just a few miles away, news of the President’s declaration was received with guffaws. On the edge of the Coastal Cluster, where the shiny stadia hosting the indoor events glinted in the afternoon sun, blocks of apartments have been constructed to house the world’s media. They are not ready.

“It is premature to call it a failure,” insisted a harassed IOC spokesperson, although he conceded there were “issues”.

Russian readiness was called into regular question throughout Tuesday and Wednesday – and in language that few of the irate journalists could print in their own publications – as they were billeted in unfinished rooms. One Briton was shown to his in the small hours of this morning, only to find workmen still putting the final touches to it. A Canadian was told not to wash his face because the water “contains something very dangerous”. Others’ rooms lacked running water entirely. Or lightbulbs. Door knobs and fridge doors came off in startled hands.

“In principle,” insisted one official, “all the work is done.” He added: “There are some elements working from a subtext that something is wrong, something is bad, there’s a reason for this, there’s a cunning plan.” 

Leaving aside Baldrick’s possible involvement, Sochi 2014 is Putin’s plan – one that began when he made the journey to Guatemala seven years ago to address the International Olympic Committee and persuade them to bring the first Olympic Games to post-Soviet Russia. Since the Second World War there has never been such a close identification of an Olympics with an individual leader. He built it, at an estimated cost of $51bn (£31bn), and the world is coming to see the most expensive Olympic Games ever. The trouble with that, for Putin at any rate, is there are some noisy bits of the world that do not like what they are seeing.

There are more important issues than the construction of the Olympic Park in Sochi and the courses an hour up the road – reportedly built at a cost of $8.6bn – in the mountains.

For many, this is the first sight of Putin’s Games. Those that have been here a while are not surprised by the flaws; one British contractor said he had long ago been told to take care as there were a lack of man-hole covers around Sochi and the Olympic Park. “ Don’t step in puddles”, he was advised.

The venues are stunning, but around them are fraying edges – and plenty of stray dogs that have avoided heavy-handed attempts to cull them. Today, when a security guard – and there are plenty of them too – raised the barrier into The Independent’s apartment block, a dog took up the invitation and trotted through. The guard made as if to give chase, but instead shrugged and decided to maintain his decorum.

Around the venues and hotels, trees have been hastily planted and secured with ropes to keep them upright. At the airport a team of Coca-Cola cheerleaders applauded arrivals, while outside workmen hurriedly pasted up Sochi 2014 posters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a visit to the Coastal Cluster Olympic Village (AP) Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a visit to the Coastal Cluster Olympic Village (AP)

In the mountains, lorries are ferrying snow from storage to the slopes. Last minute preparations, though, do not mark this out as an unusual Olympics. This is not as slap-dash as the Athens Games of 2004, and, anyhow, it is what the venues look like and what happens within them for which these Games will be remembered. At least that is what Putin hopes.

 Russian athletes poured off flights from Moscow, clapping, smiling, filming themselves next to billboards. Four years ago Russia endured their worst ever Winter Games. Huge sums have been spent in putting that right on the field of play, and where there is a shortage of talent, Russian Olympic officials have taken a leaf out of Roman Abramovich’s book and gone out and bought it. Ahn Hyun-soo, a five time short-track skating world champion, was lured from South Korea and granted Russian citizenship in 2011. He is now called Viktor.

“We are all counting on you,” Putin told Team Russia as he watched the country’s flag raised over the Olympic Park.

As in London, a few home golds and everything can quickly seem right with the Olympic world, even at such great expense. But regardless of what the IOC might wish for, politics is part of all this. Today Putin will meet with China’s president Xi Jinping as well as premiers from Holland, Japan and Turkey.  

Today, one of the two high-profile Russian environmentalists who have spoken out against the Games was sentenced to five days in detention for “resisting legitimate police orders”. Igor Kharchenko joins fellow activist Yevgeny Vitishko, who was given 15 days for swearing in public. Italy's short track speed skating team train at the Iceberg Skating Palace (Reuters) Italy's short track speed skating team train at the Iceberg Skating Palace (Reuters)

Today came the first hint that there may be some athletes who may yet – once their competition is done – be prepared to speak out against Russia’s law against “gay propaganda”, signed off by Putin last July.

Ashley Wagner, a US skater, joked about how similar the colours around the Games are to the rainbow flag. “It doesn’t really matter where I am. It’s still my opinion,” said Wagner. “I believe in equality for all.”

Rule 50 of the Olympic charter forbids athletes from making political statements during Games times. The IOC suggested nobody would be barred from speaking out during press conferences but podium protests would not be permitted. The organising committee hold a stronger line: no politics inside the Park.

If these Games are like most others, the politics will melt away once they actually begin.

As the Olympic torch arrived in town, the chatter centred around who will light the Olympic cauldron. The gold medal-winning gymnast Alina Kabaeva has been widely tipped. That’s the same Kabaeva rumoured in these parts to be Putin’s new partner. Everything, it seems, comes back to Putin.

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