Why Russia’s 2014 Olympics Could Suck

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By most standards, the 2013 Olympics in England were a hit. The opening ceremony by Danny Boyle was a hit, London’s transport managed to hold up in the face of inflated tourism and nothing went drastically wrong (perhaps the biggest surprise was that England also managed to win some medals of their own). Like all good things though, the celebrations had to come to an end and Boris Johnson (London’s mayor) had to hand the baton over to Rio (quite literally) for 2016. Can Rio live up to the standard set by the UK?

Well that’s a question for another day, before that we have the Winter Olympics of 2014 to look forward to taking place in Sochi, Russia. So how is that one likely to fair?

Well, on the one hand Russia might seem like a good place for Winter Olympics – much of it being rather frosty (images of Rocky 4 come to mind), but at the same time Russia isn’t without its problems (see ‘Pussy Riot’…) and the whole process so far hasn’t exactly gone smoothly. In fact it seems that scandals are hitting the 2014 Winter Olympics one after another. Could it be that this is going to blow up in everyone’s faces?

Akhmed Bilalov

In terms of recent bad news for the Olympics in Russia, the name ‘Akhmed Bilalov’ may well come to mind. Akhmed, former head of the Russan Olympic Committee, was publicly scolded by Putin himself for going well over budget and for a two-year delay constructing the Sochi ski jump. In February this year he was fired for his crimes, but this being Russia and this being Putin, it didn’t end there…

On April 27th, Bilalov claimed to have been exposed to mercury in an attempted poisoning at his Moscow office. After leaving Russia for treatment in Germany, he told the Interfax News Agency that elevated levels of mercury were found in his body, but that he did not ‘wish to accuse anyone’ at this point. Nevertheless, he intends on taking the matter to the police. While many have accused Bilalov of fabricating the tale though, online news site ‘Gazeta.ru’ claim they have seen a copy of his medical reports and that they do indeed show elevated mercury in the blood.

But that’s not the whole story either. In April, North Caucasus Resorts opened a criminal case against Bilalov over the Russian Olympics for embezzling $2.6 million from the company during the construction of the ski jump – that might explain why it took him so long…

As well as allegedly embezzling all that money, Bilalov is also reportedly guilty of misspending a huge $97,000 during his time as chief – which is rather a lot. Actually though, Bilalov is not the only guy responsible for massive misspending when it comes to the Olympics. Aleksei Nevsky for instance is another official under investigation regarding the Russian Olympics and has been accused once again of mismanagement and embezzlement. In fact, Russia’s Audit Chamber estimates that over $500 million has been misspent by various state-run companies responsible for organising the Russian Olympics.

All this has resulted in the Sochi games being on course to become the most expensive Olympics ever staged. The budget has swollen to five times what was estimated, generating a cost of $50 billion. Putin had recruited a number of wealthy private investors such as Oleg Deripaska, and many of them are becoming frustrated with the proceedings – demanding that the government contribute more of their own money. With so much of that misspent, and with so much bad press already surrounding the process, this has potential to go very wrong.

More Concerns

There are more concerns too. For instance, reports are coming in of ruthless damage to the environment around Sochi. In fact, The World Wildlife Fund’s Russian branch has withdrawn support of the games due to said environmental damage. The group warned that Olympic construction was ‘out of control’ and that Russian authorities have been ignoring the recommendations of ecologists.

On top of all this, allegations have also come from the Human Rights Watch regarding the mistreatment of workers. Migrant workers working at the Russian Olympics’ building sites have been repeatedly cheated out of their wages, and denied food and housing despite working long hours.

Much of this likely comes down to Putin’s desire to be seen as a strong and powerful leader of a formidable and capable nation. A leader known for his macho posturing is no doubt piling on the pressure for this to be nothing short of a grand spectacle, but if the government continues pushing so hard and alienating so many groups, it could be that the Winter Olympics – which should be kicking off in less than a year now – will ultimately collapse under the weight of their own ambition.