Putin's Sochi Olympics hopes and realities

Sochi Olympic Park in 60 seconds

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All host countries use the Olympics to improve their standing but, with the Sochi games just three months away, Russian President Vladimir Putin is also taking the opportunity to cement his own position in the world's largest country.

When the Olympic flame first arrived in Moscow, he was at the centre of an elaborate ceremony on Red Square. With rousing music playing, he strode out of the Kremlin gates on live television and marched up a long red carpet to receive the flame personally. He then stood there, torch in hand as the national anthem played.

Another torch has now been sent up to the International Space Station for a spacewalk on Saturday, to remind the world of Russia's leading role in manned space flight.

An icebreaker has even smashed its way to the North Pole with one of the torches, emphasising Russia's strength in the Arctic.

"Russia is a very special country," Dmitry Chernyshenko, the president of the Sochi Organising Committee told me.

"There are few countries capable of sending an icebreaker to the North Pole. Also we are sending the Olympic torch into outer space and that particular device will be the torch that lights the Olympic flame in the cauldron at the opening ceremony on 7 February 2014."

Putin's friend

A huge sum of money has been spent on the Games - around $50bn (£31bn; 1,620bn roubles). Though organisers insist much of that has been spent on infrastructure that might have been built anyway.

"You have to separate out and distinguish the money spent for the hosting of the Games, approximately $7bn," Dmitry Chernyshenko says.

"The rest - it's not correct to collect everything which has 'Sochi' in the title of the programme and add it to the overall budget for the preparation of the games."

"The country has spent £30bn on the Games. making these the most expensive Winter Olympic Games in history," reports Daniel Sandford

The Games are also an opportunity to see how things are done in Russia. The awarding of Olympic contracts has attracted strong criticism from the Russian opposition.

One of President Putin's oldest friends is Arkady Rotenberg. They knew each other as teenagers in St Petersburg, and have been judo sparring partners for decades.

Companies linked to Arkady Rotenberg have won contracts amounting to around $7.4bn - more than a seventh of the whole Olympic budget. His companies have built roads, the airport, the new port, a gas pipeline, and even a new power station.

"I am not in a position to judge how efficient the tenders were but they were open and transparent," Dmitry Chernyshenko insists. "Probably the proposal was the best."

Construction debris

Arkady Rotenberg has always strongly denied benefiting financially from his friendship with Vladimir Putin. "But," he recently told the Financial Times, "I have great respect for this person and I consider that this is a person sent to our country from God."

Many people in Sochi, the sub-tropical Black Sea resort that is hosting the Games along with the nearby mountain resort at Krasnaya Polyana, are calling them "Putin's Olympics". By that they mean they do not think of them as their Games.

Sochi residents have lived in an enormous building site for five years.

Villagers in Akhshtyr, just outside Sochi, complain that state-owned Russian Railways has been dumping huge quantities of construction rubble into an illegal landfill in a water protection zone nearby.

"We don't know what to do," village chief Alexander Koropov told the Associated Press last month. "We would like to petition God but we haven't got his address. He's the only person we haven't petitioned yet."

When we visited the Olympic Park on the Black Sea coast last week, the sporting venues were impressive and complete. The site is compact and looks like it will be great for the spectators who make the journey.

But the 40,000-seater Fisht Stadium, which will only be used for the opening and closing ceremonies, is far from ready.

It was designed to have an open roof but that plan was changed because of concerns that Sochi's unreliable weather might damage the sophisticated lighting and sound equipment being used for the opening ceremony.

The ceremony is being overseen personally by Konstantin Ernst, the head of Russia's state-controlled First Channel. It is not yet clear what role President Putin will play in the ceremony, which is a closely kept secret, but it promises to be a statement of Russia's rediscovered confidence.

"We want to tell to the world the story of the new, modern Russia," Dmitry Chernyshenko told me.

Candle light

One evening we climbed the hill overlooking the Sochi Olympic Park. There we met a family living in a simple house with a bare 60-watt bulb lighting their porch. They complained that they have no mains gas and their district had been plagued by power cuts.

Such complaints are common. Alexander Valov, a blogger who runs the blogsochi.ru website, said there was enthusiasm for the Games at first but now most residents are fed up.

"How can you have a positive attitude to the Olympic Games when you are sitting at home with a candle?" he asked.

"There is no light, no water, and in the distance you see the Olympic Park and it is always illuminated, and there is a normal and stable electricity supply. So you end up with feeling that everything is being done for the Olympics and not for the residents."

When the Games were first awarded to Sochi one of the prime concerns was security because of its proximity to the troubled North Caucasus region of Russia.

Those worries had subsided a little but a recent suicide bomb attack on a bus in Volgograd put the security issue back on the table.

Russia is keen to use Sochi as part of a re-branding exercise, to show the progress it has made in recent years.

But the Olympics will also shine a spotlight on some of the country's long-lasting problems - like corruption, the authorities' frequent disregard for the plight of ordinary people, and the regular terrorist attacks linked to the North Caucasus.

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