By Keith Weir
RUSSIA dismissed criticism of its preparations for the Winter Olympics on Thursday, saying it had set a ‘wonderful example’ for future hosts despite spending a record $50 billion.
The build-up to the Games in Sochi has been dominated by criticism of Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law, security concerns and gripes in the last few days about unfinished hotel rooms and the fate of the city’s stray dogs.
However, bad publicity and last-minute panics are part of the package for cities staging an Olympics.
London had to draft in thousands of extra soldiers for the 2012 Games after a private contractor failed to provide enough security guards. The death of a Georgian athlete in a training crash on the luge track overshadowed the opening of the Vancouver Games in 2010.
The mood shifted swiftly for both cities, with athletes, media and television viewers hailing them as a success.
Where Sochi differs is the sheer scale of the investment. A bill of $50 billion makes these the most expensive Olympics ever – summer or winter – and raises questions about whether it was money well spent.
“The picture is wonderful,” said Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the local organising committee, after snowboarders began the action on the eve of Friday’s opening ceremony.
“Russia has created a wonderful example to follow for future organisers of Olympic Games,” he added, citing the compact nature of the event in the Black Sea resort and nearby mountains and plans to develop Sochi’s tourism industry.
Chernyshenko said a record 88 nationalities were competing for another Winter Games record 98 medal events.
Jean-Claude Killy, the head of the IOC’s coordination commission, said Sochi had delivered on its promise.
“The transformation is astounding. All of the promises made in 2007 have been kept. Thanks for treating us like associates, partners and family, without forgetting the quest for excellence.”
IOC President Thomas Bach tried to keep organisers’ feet on the ground. “We have all reasons to be very confident but there is no reason to be complacent. We are sure it will be a success, but we have to make it one.”
Russia said it had followed the example of London and used the Games to help reshape a city.
Britain spent 9 billion pounds of public money on an Olympic Games held in a rundown area in the east of the capital. Apartment blocks where athletes slept in 2012 have now been turned into flats and the stadium will be a new home for Premier League football club West Ham United.
“They selected a depressed area and created a structure that was very comfortable for living and for sports,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak told a news conference.
“We decided to change a lot too. That is why we selected this area with its sub-tropical climate.”
Sebastian Coe, who won Olympic gold in Moscow in 1980 and chaired the London organising committee, said Russia had made a strategic decision to invest in the Sochi region.
“When the Soviet Union did break up most of the winter sports facilities were not within Russia. Russia did not actually have a concentration of winter sports facilities,” said Coe, chairman of the British Olympic Association.
Russia wants to make Sochi, a Soviet-era resort, into a destination for tourists all year around, offering sea and snow, new hotels and a theme park.
However, debt rating agency Moody’s said this week that Sochi faced tough competition for tourists from international resorts that were cheaper and easier to reach.
The International Olympic Committee is also alarmed that the costs associated with Sochi could deter other countries from bidding to host the event.
The first athletes to taste the Sochi snow gave a thumbs-up on Thursday as snowboarders competing on a course condemned as unsafe by American Shaun White who pulled out of the event on Wednesday.
“I don’t think this course is any more dangerous than any other course,” said Canadian Sebastien Toutant.
“The media overplayed it. The course was awesome.”
His positive message was echoed by American Alpine skier Bode Miller, who is competing in his fifth games.
“Everything’s been seamless,” he said.