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Russian President Vladimir Putin takes a break during a friendly hockey match at The Bolshoy Ice Dome, the part of the complex of facilities operated by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, southern Russia, Jan. 4, 2014. (Alexei Nikolsky/AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin takes a break during a friendly hockey match at The Bolshoy Ice Dome, the part of the complex of facilities operated by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, southern Russia, Jan. 4, 2014. (Alexei Nikolsky/AP)

In Sochi, anger and controversy of Olympic proportions Add to ...

Despite the runaway spending, Sochi will still have to rush, and perhaps spend even more, to get ready in time. Two months before the Feb. 7 opening ceremony, the main coastal sporting complex in the suburb of Adler was still a forest of construction cranes parked in muddy ground.

Mr. Putin visited Sochi last month and let it be known he wasn’t happy that the main Fisht Stadium – which was supposed to be finished by August – wasn’t yet complete, leaving little time for rehearsals of the opening ceremony. His fury was apparent as he delivered the tough message that there would be no Christmas or New Year’s holiday for those working on unfinished Olympic venues. “I wanted to tell you, even though it is clear anyway: For you, the New Year will be on the last day of the Paralympic Games, March 17,” the President told his visibly anxious audience.

One set of pockets that was not well-lined by the Olympic cash bonanza is that of the labourers who built the new sports venues and infrastructure. Tens of thousands of migrant workers were brought to Sochi because they were willing to accept lower wages than Russians. Men from such former Soviet republics as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Moldova worked for $700 or $800 a month, and in many cases went home empty-handed when their employers refused to pay them after the job was done.

When the labourers began to agitate over pay and working conditions last year, the government turned on them and expelled them. Many had been brought to Sochi by middlemen and, unable to speak or read Russian, were in the country illegally without knowing it.

Many ordinary Sochi residents are already looking forward to the day the Olympics are over. “They came in with this big project and said, ‘build it any way you want.’ Some people made money off of this, but not the ordinary people, not the people who have to live in this country,” said Irina Kharchinko, a 54-year-old shop owner. “They just walked on people’s heads.”

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