SOCHI, RUSSIA —
Large crates of equipment stand unopened outside the entrance to the plush new Swissotel above Sochi as it scrambles to be ready for the start of the Winter Olympics.
A bricklayer in a woolen hat puts the finishing touches to a nearby wall, workers in white helmets fix cables and others clear snow with shovels. Inside the hotel, new chairs are piled on top of each other in the lobby.
Russian officials have declared Sochi ready for the Games, on which President Vladimir Putin has staked his and his country's reputation. Days before they open on Friday, though, the organizers acknowledge that not all the new hotels are ready, despite the Games' $50-billion price tag.
“We have our first customers coming on Feb. 6,” said Oliver Kuhn, manager of the Swissotel in the Krasnaya Polyana ski resort, which will host the Alpine skiing in the Caucasus mountains above Sochi.
“We actually planned to open last month,” he said, explaining that the opening date had been put back “due to some challenges we had here.”
“But our team is quite strong, quite [well] trained, so we can handle it from our side,” he said.
Not everyone is so confident. Some journalists arrived in Sochi to find their hotels were not ready and have been moved temporarily to accommodations elsewhere in the Black Sea resort.
Others are staying in barely finished rooms which smell of fresh paint, have no Internet connection and televisions that do not work. When some turned on the taps, the water was brown. Others had no hot water.
Although no athletes are affected, officials from two countries said they were turned away when they arrived at night in Krasnaya Polyana because their hotels were not ready. They too have been temporarily moved elsewhere.
The International Olympic Committee [IOC] has urged the Russian organizers to sort out the problems quickly and says only about three percent of the newly built accommodation - around 700 rooms - are not ready for guests.
“I have some travel experience and I know how embarrassing it is when you come after a long flight... and your room is not ready. So I feel for the people,” IOC President Thomas Bach said after touring facilities in the last few days.
“Always before the Games we have some issues to be addressed,” he said. “There is a great confidence and great satisfaction with what we have seen here.”
World's Biggest Construction Site
Sochi has for years been what Putin has called the world's biggest construction site, with new hotels being built with state and private money and an $8-billion rail and road link put in place to link Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana.
Dust and the sound of drilling still fill the air in some parts of the city, and cranes dot the skyline alongside the high-rise hotels, the golden cupolas of Russian Orthodox churches and state-of-the-art sport stadiums.
About 41,000 rooms are being provided for the Games and any failure to have them ready in time would be a potential blow to Putin's hopes that the Olympics will show how far Russia has come since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Despite the concerns about the accommodation, Bach said Russia had managed in seven years to transform an old-fashioned sub-tropical summer resort, once favored by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, into a modern all-year sport and tourism hub.
About 11,000 journalists are expected to cover the Games, which open on Friday and end on Feb. 23.
Gilbert Felli, the IOC Olympic Games Executive Director, dismissed talk of a “catastrophe” over accommodation and said anyone whose hotel was not ready had been moved for the time being to similar or better accommodation.
Asked whether the competitors' friends and families were facing similar problems, Felli said: “We have not had one [single] complaint.”