Shadows surround Putin's Games
Neil Tweedie reports from Sochi on the vanity project crippling Russia that will be broadcast to a worldwide audience
Snow is not usually in short supply in Russia at this time of year, but there is one place where it is the most precious of commodities – Sochi. Fly south from Moscow to this Black Sea resort and you spend two-and-a-half hours staring down at nothing but white, a vast and empty landscape plunged into deep freeze. But arrive in Sochi and the thermometer shoots up. No white here, just a rather dispiriting shade of brown. This is not what one expects of a venue for the Winter Olympics, which begin here on Friday in front of a global audience.
Sochi 2014 are the most expensive Winter Games ever, indeed the most expensive Olympic event of any kind ever, as well as being one of the most controversial. Be it environmental damage, worker exploitation, the threat of terrorist attack or corruption on a gargantuan scale, Sochi has it all. And then there is the man behind it all, Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation, whose hopes for a public relations triumph are being undermined by his own authoritarian instincts. But first, the snow.
Imagine for a moment that you are Barack Obama and you have the right to designate the venue for the next Winter Olympics: and instead of choosing Colorado or Vermont you say, "To hell with it, let's hold 'em in Florida!" That is effectively what Mr Putin did when he selected Sochi for his Olympic bid seven years ago.
The 61-year-old president likes Sochi – so much that he is rumoured to be building a lavish retreat in the area under the guise of a scientific research facility. Stalin, too, was a habitue of what an optimistic travel agent might term the 'Caucasian Riviera'. His holiday home is still here, preserved in historical aspic.
Of course, Sochi isn't really Florida. The rain falling steadily from a low, grey sky lends it an air more of a seaside town off-season than an international sports destination.
But an absence of the white stuff is perhaps the least worrying aspect of Sochi 2014. As the opening draws near, questions about this strange event pile up like the non-existent drifts. All answers lead back to the ambition of Mr Putin.
Not since the Moscow Olympics of 1980 – blighted by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – has Russia had the chance to prove itself a deserving destination for top-of-the-line global sporting events. Mr Putin, a former KGB man not noted for his tolerance of failure, has pulled out the stops to ensure a successful Games that will act as a showcase for the Russia he wishes to portray to the outside world – a resurgent nation capable of great works.
To this end, all has been sacrificed. Money is no object, and neither is the precious environment of the north Caucasus, one of the last mountain wildernesses in Europe. Sochi has witnessed massive redevelopment, money pouring into new roads, railway links, and the Olympic park.
How much has been spent on the Games? No one really knows but the figure being bandied about is €36bn.
To put that in perspective, it is more than three times the cost of London 2012 and equal to the cost of all Winter Olympics put together since 1924. Of that, half is alleged to have been skimmed off in an orgy of corruption stretching over the seven years since Mr Putin secured the Games.
"This is a festival of corruption," says Boris Nemstov – a deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, and leading critic of the Games – who argues that Sochi should have cost a maximum of €20bn.
"The remainder," he goes on, "consists of embezzlement and kickbacks."
Mr Nemstov is hardly a neutral party, but his allegations are supported by at least one member of the International Olympic Committee. Gian-Franco Kasper, an IOC member, estimates at least one-third of spending on the Games has been siphoned off.
Still, if you ignore appearances, it doesn't really matter that it snows in Sochi only one day a year because the events being held here – ice hockey, speed skating and figure skating – are indoor events. Skiing and snowboarding will take place 30 miles to the east of Sochi in the mountains, around the resort of Krasnaya Polyana. There was some snow there on the higher slopes this week, but only a few patches on the lower ones.
Still what nature cannot provide, Vladimir Putin will. Half-a-million cubic metres of snow from last year has been stored to ensure a white Games, together with the deployment of dozens of snow-making machines.
The snow-making effort, the biggest in the world, is a tiny part of the Sochi project. The coastal Olympic park is linked to Krasnaya Polyana by a new road and railway that cuts through the mountains, following the course of the River Mzymta.
This was largely virgin territory before 2007, but no longer. The once-clear waters of the Mzymta are brown now, discoloured by soil. Villagers now play host to pylons and heaps of debris, their wells disrupted and houses damaged by subsidence.
"We had nothing against the Games," says Alexander Koropov, who lives in the village of Akhshtyr. "We thought they would bring good things to this area, but there has been only trouble."
Mr Koropov relied on his orchard for his income but the kiwi fruit he once sold are now withered by pollution. "I believe the president does not know what is happening here. He is not being told," he says.
Employees in Sochi's numerous new hotels have been sent on courses in how to smile at the guests soon to arrive at the newly-expanded airport. The tutorials should have been extended to the Cossacks and the rest of Russia's security forces, trained to adopt a poker face when dealing with civilians.
Russia's long and violent involvement in the Caucasus is threatening to rebound in Sochi. Islamic militants are promising a repeat of the bombings in Volgograd last year, which killed 34 people. Doku Umarov, leader of the "Caucasus emirate" group, has urged followers to use "maximum force" to disrupt the Games. To counter the threat, some 100,000 security personnel have been drafted in. Drones, warships and surface-to-air missile batteries make for a siege rather than festival atmosphere.
Demonstrations of any kind have been banned in Sochi for the duration of the Games, including gay activists protesting against new laws banning "homosexual propaganda". Sochi's mayor, a Putin placeman, recently suggested that there were no gay people in his town, and that if there were they should keep their "habits" to themselves.
The authorities' heavy-handedness is also seen in the treatment of foreign workers drafted in to build new roads, railways and stadia.
Some 50,000, mostly from Central Asia, have been recruited over the past seven years by sub-contractors, their foreign passports and imprecise contracts guaranteeing them zero protection.
Many have returned home unpaid, while others have been deported.
The airliners arrive this week, disgorging athletes and spectators in search of medals and thrills.
The dark side of Sochi will be forgotten as the cameras relay images of sporting prowess around the world.