The Waste and Corruption of Vladimir Putin’s 2014 Winter Olympics

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The new road and railway to Krasnaya Polyana, the mountain resort that will host the ski and snowboard events of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, start in Adler, a beachfront town that has become a boisterous tangle of highway interchanges and construction sites. A newly opened, glass-fronted train station—the largest in Russia—sits like a sparkling prism between the green and brown peaks of the Caucasus Mountains and the lapping waves of the Black Sea.

The state agency that oversaw the infrastructure project is Russian Railways, or RZhD. The agency’s head is Vladimir Yakunin, a close associate of Vladimir Putin. It oversees 52,000 miles of rail track, the third-largest network in the world, and employs nearly a million people. The 31-mile Adler-to-Krasnaya Polyana project is among its most ambitious, reminiscent in its man-against-nature quality of the Baikal-Amur Mainline railway built by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and ’80s across the remote taiga forests of the Russian Far East. Now, as then, grandeur and showmanship are as important as the finished project. Putin sees the Sochi Games as a capstone to the economic and geopolitical revival of Russia, which he has effectively ruled for 14 years. The route connects the arenas and Olympic Village along the Black Sea with the mountains above. Andrey Dudnik, the deputy head of Sochi construction for RZhD, is proud of his company’s accomplishment, given the region’s difficult terrain and the rushed time frame for finishing construction. “Few people believed,” he says. “But we did it.”

On a cloudless, 70-degree day this fall, I boarded a train—newly built by Siemens (SI) and smelling of fresh upholstery—in Adler. The train dashed along the riverbank on a curving track supported by cement columns dotting the shore. We passed into a long tunnel, lit with soft yellow light. The engineering work was so challenging, Dudnik boasts, that in 2011 RZhD was named Major Tunnelling Project of the Year at an international awards ceremony in Hong Kong.

Among Russians, the project is famous for a different reason: its price tag. At $8.7 billion, it eclipses the total cost for preparations for the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. A report by opposition politicians Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk calculated that the Russian state spent three times more on the road than NASA did for the delivery and operation of a new generation of Mars rovers. An article in Russian Esquire estimated that for the sum the government spent on the road, it could have been paved entirely with a centimeter-thick coating of beluga caviar.

The train glided to a stop at the Krasnaya Polyana station. The floors were buffed to the shimmery gloss of a desert mirage. The air up here was cooler; snow mottled the mountaintops ahead. Down the hillside stood a giant banner: “Sochi is preparing for Olympic records!”

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At $51 billion, the Sochi Games are the costliest ever, surpassing the $40 billion spent by China on the 2008 Summer Olympics. The suicide bombings in the Russian city of Volgograd on Dec. 29 and 30 have heightened fears of terrorism and given a renewed focus to security concerns as well as questions of cost. How the Sochi Games grew so expensive is a tale of Putin-era Russia in microcosm: a story of ambition, hubris, and greed leading to fabulous extravagance on the shores of the Black Sea. And extravagances, in Russia especially, come at a price.

Back in 2007, when Russia was bidding to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, the huge amounts it was willing to spend were a point of pride, an enticement meant to win over officials at the International Olympic Committee. Putin traveled to Guatemala City to give a rare speech in English, with even a touch of French, to the assembled IOC delegates, promising to turn Sochi into “a world-class resort” for a “new Russia” and the rest of the world. His pledge to spend $12 billion in Sochi dwarfed the bids of the other finalists from South Korea and Austria.

But since then, as costs have increased, Russian officials have grown less eager to boast about the size of the final bill. “In the beginning, money was a reason and argument for Russia to win the right to host the Olympics,” says Igor Nikolaev, director of strategic analysis at FBK, an audit and consulting firm in Moscow. “But it turned out we spent so much that everybody is trying not to talk about it anymore.” Dmitry Kozak, deputy prime minister in charge of Olympic preparations, has argued that the $51 billion number is misleading. Only $6 billion of that is directly Olympics-related, he says; the rest has gone to infrastructure and regional development the state would have carried out anyway. That may be true, though it’s hard to imagine the Russian government building an $8.7 billion road and railway up to the mountains without the Games.

Bent Flyvbjerg, an expert on what are called “megaprojects” at the Saïd Business School at Oxford University, says the costs for Olympic host nations have on average tripled from the initial bid to the opening ceremonies. In Sochi, costs rose nearly five times. That these Olympics should be the most expensive in history is all the more improbable, says Allison Stewart, a colleague of Flyvbjerg’s at Oxford, because compared with Summer Games, Winter Olympiads involve fewer athletes (2,500 vs. 11,000), fewer events (86 vs. 300), and fewer venues (15 vs. 40).

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