Putin's Olympic steamroller in Sochi
- 7 February 2013
- From the section Europe
As you step off the plane at Adler-Sochi airport, you are immediately aware that you are in one of the biggest construction sites in the world. The airport itself is being completely renovated. Outside, near the drop-off area, giant Olympic rings are under construction.
From the airport, you can head north on the 40km (25-mile) drive into the mountains, up a once-beautiful valley now dominated by a half-built new highway and railway. Or you can head south to the coast, to the enormous Olympic Park built next to the Black Sea, where huge trucks and cranes are omnipresent.
This is already officially the most expensive Olympics ever. The estimated $50bn (£32bn; 37bn euros) budget is more than the Beijing Olympics, three times the London summer Olympics, and 25 times the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
The Russian taxpayer is meeting much of the bill, but parts of it are being paid by the "oligarchs", the country's wealthiest men. For example Russia's 14th-richest man, Oleg Deripaska, has paid for the airport and the new port built to bring in the construction materials. Vladimir Potanin, the fourth-richest, has built a brand new ski resort - from scratch - in a quiet valley in the Caucasus mountains.
Vladimir Potanin made his billions in nickel, but has become well known for his philanthropy in recent years, supporting the arts and sport. But the $2bn he has spent constructing Rosa Khutor puts everything else into the shade.
As he showed off the resort (he is an accomplished skier) his enthusiasm was clear. He said the idea had first come to him more than 10 years ago.
"We were skiing with President [Vladimir] Putin in Austria," he explained, "and there was talk that it would be good to have such resorts in Russia."
At first the proposal was just to build a world-class ski resort, but then came the successful bid for the Winter Olympics. The budget grew from $300m to $2bn. He admitted that he might not get much return on his investment.
"It's more a question of legacy," he said.
"For my colleagues, I also think it is mostly the payback issue because we talk a lot in Russia about the question of whether it is fair or not that we have a lot of rich people.
"It's not possible to change it overnight by paying some kind of fine or whatever. I think that the rich people have to work more for the country. And that's how they can change their image from somebody who is just rich to somebody who is doing something good for the country. Of course it is a payback, a legacy issue."
But he did add that he was hoping to get some of the money back from the government.
"With the hosting of the Olympics of course, the resort - Rosa Khutor - bears a lot of expenses which are not commercial and when and if these expenses are covered, the project is profitable," he said.
The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics is something of a personal project for President Putin, which perhaps explains the extraordinary no-expenses-spared policy that has allowed the budget to rocket past even Beijing.
But part of the reason is also the lack of pre-existing facilities. There was no ski resort, no ski jump, no bobsled track, no skating rink and no railway or sizeable road joining the beachside Olympic Park,that will host the skating events, to the mountain areas, that will host the skiing and sliding events.
But what has been created is something unique. A men's downhill ski-run with a view of the sea, and a collection of skating rinks set among the palm trees of a Black Sea resort.
It has not been without pain, though.
Lyudmila Yakovenko and her husband and two sons used to live in a house by the beach but the home was demolished to make way for the Olympic Park. Now they live in a scruffy rented garage with blankets hung across the door to keep them warm, and one room upstairs.
"We lived on the beach," she said. "We had our own backyard, a garden, flowers. We could see the sea from our windows. We grew up on the beach. Now our kids are growing up, and we hoped that their lives would be the same. But it all changed. They took away our family home, they took everything.
"My older son keeps asking me: 'Why are we living like this?' and I say: 'Because of the Olympics'."
She claims she has been compensated for only half the value of her old home.
On a hillside with a view of the Olympic Park, Tatiana Skiba surveyed the ruins of her home. She and her husband and son and daughter moved there 18 years ago, and lived in a wooden house while they built an impressive new one. But one night they were woken up by what seemed to be an earthquake. The house was shifting ominously under their bed. When they went outside they realised the whole hillside was on the move. It turned out that further up the hill there was an illegal dump where vast amounts of concrete and rubble from the Olympics site had been tipped.
Her old house is a wreck, and her new one leans dramatically to one side.
"If this hadn't happened, I might have enjoyed the Olympics," she said.
"But now the Olympics is hell for me and for everyone who lives along this street. It is hell and we feel very bitter towards the government. Even if it is prestigious for the country to host the Games it is a calamity, a real calamity."
This winter, athletes have been flooding to Sochi for a series of test events. They can see the disruption, and feel for the residents. But they also understand that next year's Games could be something special.
Elise Christie, the short track speed skater who is one of Britain's best medal hopes in 2014, has just secured her World Cup victory in Sochi and is looking forward to the Games
"I think it will be one of the best ones," she predicted. "Just now it maybe doesn't looks like it's ready, but that is because they are building everything from scratch."