From persistent allegations of corruption to worries about gay rights and terrorism, Russian President Vladimir Putin has had few opportunities to present the Winter Olympics as he intended: a triumphant moment that has put Russia back on the map.
With less than three weeks to go to the start of the Sochi Games, Putin gathered international television networks to a cosy mountain studio to put across the narrative of Sochi 2014 as a gay-friendly event in which every dollar has been accounted for and sport will be the winner.
The questioning from journalists, including the BBC’s Andrew Marr and George Stephanopoulos — who was a spokesman for former US president Bill Clinton and is now at US TV channel ABC — was gentle enough, while Putin’s message was strident, but not entirely convincing.
On corruption, he insisted that there had been no systemic graft during the preparations for the Games and said all allegations to the contrary were not backed up by facts.
“I do not see serious corruption instances for the moment, but there is a problem with overestimation of construction volumes,” Putin said.
He added that some contractors had won tenders due to low bids which they subsequently inflated.
“This price increase, it is sometimes due to contractor’s deliberate acts and sometimes it is due to the fact that the professional valuation of necessary investments, especially in mountain conditions, for a mountain cluster, are not efficient enough,” Putin added.
The official figure for spending on Sochi had previously been put at about US$51 billion, four times more than planned, and exceeding that of the London and Beijing summer Olympics. One report put the corruption estimate at US$30 billion, a figure greater than the GDP of more than half the world’s countries.
International Olympic Committee member Gian Franco Kasper has said that as much as one-third of the US$51 billion price tag — the largest in the history of the Olympics — has been siphoned off. One road alone cost about ￡6 billion (US$9.87 billion), which is more than the entire cost of the previous Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Yet Putin told the journalists that the real cost of the Sochi Olympics was just 214 billion rubles (US$6.34 billion) and that all other spending involved necessary improvements to transport infrastructure, as well as creating Russia’s first modern holiday resort. He said that Kasper’s words had been taken out of context, adding that no one had proof of corruption.
“If anyone has such information, give it to us, please. I repeat once again, we will be grateful, but so far there was nothing but talks,” he said.
The Olympics are a pet project for Putin, who has a residence in Sochi and has personally overseen preparations since Russia won the right to host the Games.
He admitted that he thought the Olympics were important as part of his project to boost national pride, saying: “There is also a certain psychological aspect here and we can talk about it directly, without any embarrassment or pretense. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, after the dark and — let us be honest, bloody events in the Caucasus — the public attitude in Russia became very negative and pessimistic. We have to pull ourselves together and realize that we can deliver large-scale projects on time and with high standards.”