Russia's 2014 Olympics a Disaster in the Making

Could Russia be divested of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, which have been awarded to its southern city of Sochi? For several reasons, it's becoming a distinct possibility. And Russia might be better off if it happened.

At a press conference in Moscow on April 10, timed to coincide with the Kremlin's first formal progress report to the International Olympic Committee, a coalition of anti-Kremlin activists, including Garry Kasparov, warned that several of the Kremlin's planned construction sites have become infeasible due to the unforeseen height of the water table. The IOC, in an unusual move, granted the games to Sochi without there being any actual infrastructure in place to receive them, solely on the Kremlin's word that a whole new world would be created from scratch. This has even included a grandiose plan to build a Russia-shaped island off the coast of Sochi in the Black Sea to house the athletes. Last October, Vladimir Putin himself stated: "We unfortunately have to admit that at this point, in a city of half a million people, there is no proper sewage system, electricity supply, or infrastructure." One must wonder how clearly Russia made that point to the IOC in its bid document.

Rather obviously, if you don't build it, they won't come.

But even if the facilities could be constructed, opposition advocates point out that the cost of doing so will be astronomical, far beyond the figure quoted by Russia to the IOC in its bid. The Other Russia coalition states: "Ivan Starikov of the People for Democracy and Justice Party commented that the current estimate for transportation infrastructure alone was now set at seven billion dollars. One Russian member of parliament, Viktor Ilyukhin, told the press on April 3 that the Sochi Olympics could cost more than the last three Winter Olympic Games combined." This means, quite simply, that Russia has hoodwinked the IOC and defrauded the other nations who bid for the 2014 games, because proposed expenditure was a major factor in analyzing the bids. The nations who were denied the games could sue to block Russia from proceeding.

As if to confirm these serious problems, on April 18 the Moscow Times reported that Semyon Vainshtok, head of the corporate entity responsible for constructing the facilities, had abruptly resigned "amid accusations of mismanagement and cost overruns." The paper reported that though the government had earmarked $8.5 billion for construction, costs had already passed $12 billion and were expected to reach $24 billion or more. Victor Ilyukhin, a Communist parliamentarian, said "the state's planned budget for Sochi, $11.9 billion, would dwarf the $6 billion combined total spent on the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Salt Lake City, and Turin."

Apart from the question of fraud, there's also the issue of basic economic justice. Russia is a nation with yearly medical doctor salaries that average $5,160 to $6,120, while nurses make an average of $2,760 to $3,780 annually. That means a top-end doctor, like a surgeon, is only making about $500 per month, less than the national average of around $650 (the "average" isn't a useful indicator of actual income, however, because it's skewed by the bizarre level of income paid to Russia's super-rich oligarchs). As a result, many Russian physicians turn to corrupt practices like selling drugs on the black market and demanding bribes from patients in order to make ends meet. Given that background, it's no surprise to learn that Russia has only 200,000 of the 600,000 physicians it needs as a nation and that it does not rank in the world's top 100 nations for average male adult lifespan.

In a brilliant white paper reviewing the Putin years in power, former Kremlin insider Boris Nemtsov points out: "In 2007, expenditure planned for public health and education amounted to 9% of the federal budget. For 2008, the three-year budget for 2008-2010 is allocating 8% of the federal budget and this will go down to just 7.5% in 2009." Russia "spends only three percent of its GDP on health, a figure that is only half of what it should spend and one that puts Russia near the bottom of developed countries," according to scholar Paul Goble, translating a Russian report by Leonid Roshal, the director of the Moscow Research Institute on Emergency Pediatric Surgery and Traumatology. And of that measly 3%, he says, up to a third will be siphoned off by corruption before it ever reaches those it was intended to support. Last July, before Putin's recent purge of parliament, even some elected officials in Russia were appalled by the obvious inequity. Andrey Savelyev, deputy chairman of the Committee of the State Duma for Constitutional Legislation and State Building, stated: "Indeed in order to convert this city into the sports center, it is necessary to spend colossal amounts of money, which are necessary in our country for other purposes."

And even if the cost and construction were under control, there are other serious problems. Greenpeace is threatening legal action over wanton environmental spoilage that is occurring in the formerly pristine Black Sea ecosystems. Mass evictions are occurring under an eminent domain law that was hurriedly pushed through parliament, and local residents are complaining about mistreatment and lack of fair compensation. They argue the eminent domain statute is unconstitutional. Recently, protesters clashed with police and many were violently assaulted.

On top of all that, there's still a thousand-pound gorilla in the room named Chechyna. Separatist violence in the war-torn region is far from under control, and the region is suffering from extreme levels of unemployment (up to 400,000 of Chechnya's 1.1 million inhabitants are jobless). It's hard to imagine how the Chechen rebels, who have inflicted the brutal Beslan and Dubrovka terrorist assaults, will decide to stand idly by as Russia attempts to carry out a public relations stunt right under their noses, literally a Molotov's cocktail throw away. Think Tibet, times ten (not surprisingly, the head of the Sochi games has vociferously opposed a China boycott). It's even harder to imagine what possible rationale led the IOC to vest this particular region of Russia, of all places, with the Winter Games. In an unprecedented move, Russia is already testing various defensive missile systems to protect Sochi during the games.

Last August, the Moscow Times reported on Russia's attempt to host what it billed as a "big league air show," attempting to market its airplanes to international buyers. The paper stated that international visitors were shocked by the backwardness they encountered. "Words like ‘amateur' and ‘bizarre' were ... common in assessments coming from foreigners," whose most frequent complaints "ranged from poor transport links and inadequate infrastructure to ponderous security checks, bad food, and revolting public toilets." One visitor stated: "It is very expensive to be here and it is not worth it."

So, in the end, it actually might be better for Russia's reputation if it did lose the games; otherwise, under the white-hot spotlight of world attention, Russia may be exposed as a Potemkin Village and melt before the world's eyes like so much springtime snow. It could be that Putin actually has no genuine desire to impress the outside world, but rather only wants to create a spectacle for domestic consumption, filtered through the helpful eyes of Russia's state-controlled media. If he's not careful, though, Russia could experience a spectacular and unprecedented humiliation that the nation's still-kicking Internet will percolate throughout the country.

And the people of Russia would certainly be better off without the games, devoting their precious (and temporal) fossil fuel windfall to vital needs such as medical care. Quite literally, the IOC's decision to hand Putin's Russia the games may be helping the people of the country into an early grave.

Seen in that light, the apparent decision of Russia's opposition forces to target the Kremlin's weakness on Sochi is a formidable one. This is clearly an area where they have the potential to gain serious traction if they play their cards well, and it will be most interesting to see how the matter unfolds.

Kim Zigfeld is a New York City-based writer who blogs at the Pajamas Media Network blog Publius Pundit and publishes her own Russia specialty blog, La Russophobe. She also writes for Russia! magazine and is researching a book on the rise of dictatorship in Putin’s Russia.