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Unfinished construction evident as Russia braces for Olympics

Published February 7, 2014 10:34 am

Winter Olympics • Many problems remain as Opening Ceremony nears.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Sochi, Russia •Â Triumph or disaster?

That's the fundamental question hanging over the 2014 Sochi Olympics that officially begin here Friday, from both a sporting and security standpoint. While dozens of athletes with Utah ties are seeking their bright shining moment on the world's grandest athletic stage — five native Utahns are strong contenders to win gold, for example — so too are organizers hoping they pull off an especially noncontroversial Olympics despite unprecedented costs, unhappy visitors and looming terrorist threats.

"I'm very confident they will be successful," International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said.

Not everyone is so sure.

Organizers have faced withering criticism on many fronts, from allegations of vast corruption in their unprecedented $51 billion budget — greater than all previous Winter Olympics combined — to fears about inadequate security amid threats from insurgents in the nearby North Caucasus region. Activists also have assailed Russia for its human-rights record, a new law banning gay "propaganda" and a now-scrapped plan to kill dozens of the stray dogs that roam Sochi.

Just as bad, from an image perspective, is that many journalists and others who will dictate the global conversation about Sochi have arrived in this resort town on the Black Sea only to discover expensive hotel rooms in shambles or unfinished, with construction and repairs going on seemingly everywhere still, with just two days until the Opening Ceremony.

Many have taken to social media to document their troubles — check #SochiProblems on Twitter — including undrinkable water, unfinished hotels, rooms without furniture and, in the case of one German photographer, one of the ubiquitous stray dogs in his room.

"Almost every room is missing something," columnist Bruce Arthur wrote on Canada.com. "Lightbulbs, TVs, lamps, chairs, curtains, Wi-Fi, heat, hot water. Shower curtains are a valuable piece of the future black market here."

Many Olympics have gone down to the wire in their preparations, but in Sochi the last-minute scramble has been particularly galling because of the soaring cost of the Olympics — aided by staggering corruption, according to many reports — and the age-old fear that it would not be ready.

When Sochi was awarded the Games in 2007, many critics doubted Russia could transform a faded seaside resort into a place capable of staging such a massive international event.

Indeed, organizers have built just about everything from scratch in the intervening seven years, from ski jumps and bobsled runs to speedskating rinks and hotels … however many of them remain not quite finished.

"We realize what a difficult decision this was to hold the Games in a city that barely had 10 to 15 percent of the necessary infrastructure," Russian President Vladimir Putin told IOC members Tuesday. "You believed in us, you believed in the Russian character, which can overcome all difficulties."

The Olympics are seen as a vanity project for Putin, right down to speculation that his reputed girlfriend, former rhythmic gymnastics champion Alina Kabayeva, will light the torch at the Opening Ceremony. He has said the Olympics can serve to vitalize the entire region around Sochi, about 850 miles south of Moscow.

But the location also has made security a huge concern.

Militant separatist and Islamist groups in the neighboring Dagestan and Chechnya regions have warned of attacks against the Olympics, to undermine Putin's hope of using the Games to showcase Russia as a safe and modern state. Two Austrian athletes reportedly have received anonymous written threats, and U.S. officials have continued to express concern about security.

"There are a number of specific threats of varying degrees of credibility that we're tracking," Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told a House Intelligence Committee meeting Tuesday. "And we're working very closely with the Russians and with other partners to monitor any threats we see and to disrupt those."

Several U.S. lawmakers have expressed similar concern that the Olympics will not be safe, and some athletes share the worry.

Speedskater Tucker Fredricks, who lives and trains in Salt Lake City, has told his parents to stay home in Wisconsin, while snowboard champion Torah Bright, of Australia, who also lives in Salt Lake City, had been outspoken in her potential willingness to skip the Olympics out of security concerns.

"If the political position gets any worse, I sure as hell won't be risking my safety just for an Olympic Games," she said in December, after two suicide bombings killed 34 people in Volgograd, about 430 miles from Sochi.

The reigning Olympic halfpipe champion is bidding for gold in all three snowboarding disciplines — halfpipe, slopestyle and snowboardcross — and she's just one of more than 60 athletes with Utah connections who will compete in Sochi.

Five out of 15 natives of the state have strong chances to bring home gold, including bobsledders Steven Holcomb and Chris Fogt, ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson, skeleton slider Noelle Pikus-Pace and Alpine skier Ted Ligety.

"I'm really excited," said Hendrickson, the reigning world champion who has recovered from a serious knee injury nearly six months ago. "When I was younger, I didn't like competing at all. I always got stressed out. But now it's a huge motivation for me. I actually miss the pressure and miss the excitement of competing and having a good jump in competition, so hopefully that will turn out for me in Sochi."

She's not the only one hoping for good things.

"I want to assure you that we will do everything so that Sochi is a hospitable home for all the participants, for all the guests," Putin said. "The main task is to make the Sochi Games a celebration for all sport lovers in the world. We will do everything to hold the Olympic Games at the very highest level."

The world shall soon see.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.