— It is the largest construction site in Europe: 100,000 men and 500 companies are working around the clock.
They are building hotels, skating rinks and ski jumps for next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, on Russia's southern Black Sea coast.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that construction would meet the deadlines for the February Olympics, fireworks greeted the president’s progress report.
Oleg Krachenko manages the Bolshoy Ice Dome, a completed rink, where President Putin launched the one year countdown on February 7.
Standing in front of the smooth ice of the new hockey rink, he said, “We want to show that even here, in the south of Russia, even in this southern city, you can have the Winter Olympics.”
A digital clock counts down the days to the February 7 opening of the Winter Olympics, Sochi, Russia, March 16, 2013. (V. Undritz/VOA)
Construction continues on the 40,000 seat stadium that will be used for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics, March 15, 2013. (V. Undritz/VOA)
This speed skating rink will be used for the Olympic Games and then dismantled, Sochi, Russia, March 15, 2013. (V. Undritz/VOA)
The Iceberg will host competitions of figure skating, a favorite sport of Russians, Sochi, Russia, March 15, 2013. (V. Undritz/VOA)
The oval shaped “Bolshoy” Ice Dome will host hockey matches. After the games, it can be reconfigured for tennis, basketball and football, Sochi, Russia, March 15, 2013. (V. Undritz/VOA)
Ice machines smooth the ice prior to a hockey practice inside the Ice Dome, Sochi, Russia, March 15, 2013. (V. Undritz/VOA)
Red roofed housing for Olympic athletes rises between the Ice Dome and a new Radisson Blu hotel, Sochi, Russia, March 15, 2013. (V. Undritz/VOA)
With 100,000 workers, Sochi has become the largest construction site in Europe, Sochi, Russia, March 15, 2013. (V. Undritz/VOA)
Subtropical plants acclimate in a nursery in preparation for massive landscaping planned for the months prior to the Olympics, Sochi, Russia, March 15, 2013. (V. Undritz/VOA)
Hussein Karimovich is hoping to collect $6,500 in pay he says a Russian contractor owes him and his Uzbek team for working on the Olympic ski jump, Sochi, Russia, March 15, 2013. (V. Undritz/VOA)
Residents in the Kudepsta neighborhood maintain a protest camp across a stream from a site chosen for construction of the region’s largest power plant, Sochi, Russia, March 16, 2013. (V. Undritz/VOA)
The Olympic ski jump rises from the mountain mists above Sochi, Russia, March 17, 2013. (V. Undritz/VOA)
But there is a price to pay. At $51 billion, the Sochi Olympics will be the most expensive in the history of the Games. They are running five times over the initial budget of six years ago.
The Sochi Olympics will cost almost six times as much as the last Winter Olympics, in Vancouver.
Vladimir Kimaev is a Sochi environmentalist. He said the Kremlin is wasting money on a prestige project that will last two weeks.
“Is it normal for state money to be spent on facilities that will not be needed in the future,” he asked, speaking over the construction din in downtown Sochi. “New information says that the ski jump will be completely removed.”
Kimaev and others say much of the $51 billion has disappeared as a result of corruption. Looking at the 48-kilometer road and rail link between skating rinks on the Black Sea and snow venues in the Caucasus Mountains, he said "it cost the Mars project about $2.5 billion to fly to Mars,” giving a high estimate to the cost of the U.S. Mars Exploration Rover. “The road to Kransnaya Polyana costs from $7.5-10 billion. So, actually it is like a road of gold,” he added.
Semyon Simonov, a labor lawyer in Sochi, said many contractors have cheated Central Asian construction workers.
“Very often, when employers hire foreign workers, they take their documents, supposedly to give them work permits, but in actuality they don’t process them,” said Simonov, who researched abuses for a report by Human Rights Watch. “And therefore these people are here illegally and can be sent away at any moment,” he added.
In the report, Simonov cited dozens of cases of Olympic employers shortchanging immigrant workers.
One of them is Hussein Karimovich, a construction worker from Uzbekistan.
“Ten people would work during the day and 10 people would work at night,” said Karimovich. “That’s how they organized it so the ski jump could be finished faster.”
He said when the work was finished, the contractor disappeared, leaving $6,500 in unpaid wages.
But with the one-year countdown now under way, the Kremlin is hoping that hoopla and excitement will carry the day in February, when Russia hosts its first Winter Olympic games.