Putin angry over Sochi Olympics cost overruns

A year before the 2014 Winter Olympics are to begin, President

Vladimir Putin has demanded that a senior member of the Russian

Olympic Committee be fired, apparently due to cost overruns in host

city Sochi – a demand certain to be fulfilled.

The current price tag for the Sochi Games is 1.5 trillion rubles

($51 billion), which would make them the most expensive games in

the history of the Olympics – more costly even than the much-larger

Summer Olympics held in London and Beijing.

The games at the Black Sea resort of Sochi are considered a

matter of national pride and one of Putin’s top priorities.

The Russian president’s decision came after he scolded officials

over a two-year delay and huge cost overruns in the construction of

the Sochi ski jump facilities. The official facing dismissal, Akmet

Bilalov, had a company that was building the ski jump and its

adjacent facilities before selling its stake to state-owned

Sberbank last year.

During his tour of Olympic venues, Putin fumed when he heard

that the cost of the ski jump had soared from 1.2 billion rubles

($40 million) to 8 billion rubles ($265 million) and that the

project was behind schedule.

”So a vice president of the Olympic Committee is dragging down

the entire construction? Well done! You are doing a good job,”

Putin said Wednesday, seething with sarcasm.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak told reporters Thursday that

Putin had recommended that the Russian Olympic Committee fire

Bilalov, one of its six vice presidents.

”As far as Bilalov is concerned the president voiced his

decision yesterday: People who don’t make good on their obligations

at such a scale cannot head the Olympic movement in our country,”

he said.

The Russian Olympic Committee said in a statement that a

decision on Bilalov would be made by the executive committee in the

near future, a move likely to be only a formality. Putin’s power in

Russia is such that resisting the call for his dismissal would be

almost unthinkable.

Kozak underscored that by saying, ”I very much hope that our

Olympic movement will listen to the recommendations of the

country’s leadership.”

Most countries that host the Olympics use public funds to pay

for most of the construction of the sports venues and new

infrastructure such as roads and trains. The Russian government,

however, has gotten state-controlled companies and tycoons to foot

more than half of the bill.

Both the companies and the tycoons understand the importance of

maintaining good relations with Putin, who has a lot of prestige

riding on the success of the Sochi games.

Kozak said the costs constantly increased for the ski jump

project because Bilalov’s company did not properly check the land

and, as a result, picked a geologically challenging plot.

”His calculations failed,” Kozak said.

Despite these setbacks, Russian officials on Thursday went to

great lengths to reiterate that everything in Sochi was now on

schedule.

”As (International Olympic Committee) members and we stated

yesterday, it is already clear that we have succeeded with this

immense – and possibly the most immense – project in Russia’s

modern history,” Kozak said.

Taking a cue from Putin, however, Russian officials sought to

play down the high costs. Kozak said the government spent no more

than 100 billion rubles ($3 billion) on the Olympic venues and the

immediate infrastructure.

The government has spent a total of $13 billion so far, and

expects to spend about $18 billion overall before the games begin,

Kozak has said previously.

On Thursday, Kozak said it was unfair to compare Sochi’s budget

to that of previous Olympic games because Russian organizers had to

build most of the vital and costly infrastructure that was needed –

roads, railways, tunnels, gas pipelines – from scratch.

No Russian officials went near the topic of possible corruption,

even though Russian business is notoriously plagued by it. Russia

last year ranked 133rd out of 176 in Transparency International’s

Corruption Perception Index, along with countries such as

Kazakhstan, Iran and Honduras.

Although there were no documented cases of corruption directly

linked to Olympic construction in Sochi, a dozen officials from the

Sochi government have been slapped with charges of corruption in

the past year.

Kozak and Sochi officials insist that they’re keeping the

situation under control and that no money is being stolen at

Olympic sites.

Sochi organizers also sought to assuage fears that the 2014

Games may fall victim to a warm and snowless winter – or a howling

blizzard.

Temperatures at Sochi’s Krasnaya Polyana ski resort hovered at

59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius) on Thursday, and reached

66 degrees F (19 C) in the coastal city of Sochi. That’s after a

cold snap the previous week in which athletes competed in test

events amid snowstorms as temperatures dipped to 20 degrees F (-6

C).

Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the local organizing committee,

said Sochi boasts one of Europe’s largest snow-making systems and

also has equipment that can store snow throughout the summer and

protect slopes and tracks from rain and fog. More than 400

snow-making generators will be deployed on the slopes.

He said Sochi has special equipment that can make snow even in

temperatures up to 59 degrees (15 C).

”Snow will be guaranteed in 2014,” Chernyshenko declared.

Warm temperatures and rain disrupted some of the snowboarding

and freestyle skiing events at the 2010 Winter Games in

Vancouver.

The countdown celebrations culminated later Thursday in a

star-studded ice show at one of the Olympic arenas, attended by

Putin and IOC President Jacques Rogge.

”Today we have come to an important line – exactly a year

remains until the first Winter Games in the history of Russia,”

Putin said at the show. ”International test events have shown that

the Olympic facilities of Sochi are already prepared to hold the

games.”

Also Thursday, tickets for the games went on sale online in

Russia.

The prices range from a low of 500 rubles ($17) to a high of

50,000 rubles ($1,700). Organizers said about 40 percent of the

tickets would be priced under 3,000 rubles ($100). The total number

of tickets put on sale was not disclosed.

In a bid to combat ticket scalping, Sochi organizers said they

would limit the number of tickets that can be bought by one person.

For the most popular events, such as the opening ceremony and top

ice hockey games, the limit would be four tickets per person.

Sochi organizers will also require visitors to apply for a

special spectator pass without which they will not be able to

access the venues.

The games run from Feb. 7-23, 2014.

Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Moscow.