One year out, Sochi's Winter Olympics is already dogged by allegations of massive corruption

Martin Rogers
Yahoo Sports

The most surprising aspect about the problems besetting the 2014 Winter Olympics is not that they will be the most expensive Olympics ever staged, but why.

Sochi, Russia, will host the chilliest season's quadrennial showpiece 12 months from now in what Russian President Vladimir Putin has described as "an extravaganza beyond compare."

Yet as anti-corruption and human rights groups train their eyes ever more keenly on the event and its increasing glut of negative publicity, even a politician as skilled in bluster as Putin can only hope to quell the growing level of discontent.

More than $50 billion will be spent on hosting the 17-day multi-sport competition, dwarfing the spending on London's 2012 Summer Olympics ($14.4 billion) and even outstripping the lavish, no-expense-spared, $40 billion celebrations of Beijing four years earlier.

The Sochi tally is likely to exceed its original budget by a factor of five as reports of mass levels of corruption and misappropriation of funds threaten to create a picture ugly enough to generate exactly the kind of international attention the proud Putin fears.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Olympic site in Sochi. (AP)

Given that the Winter Games are generally smaller of scale and cost than their summer counterparts, how has a host city and its government managed to burn through a figure large enough to make even the most loaded oligarch choke on his borscht?

Exorbitant spending on public infrastructure always helps, and the $8.6 billion (yes, billion) splurged on less than 30 miles of road linking Sochi, where "city" events such as hockey, speed skating and figure skating will be held, and the mountain sports center of Krasnaya Polyana has been touted as a gold-medal worthy highlight of fiscal ineptitude.

"You could have paved this road with 5 million tons of gold or caviar and the price would have been the same," Russia's opposition leader Boris Nemtsov said in an interview with the RBK television channel.

[Slideshow: Athletes to watch for at 2014 Winter Olympics]

Even if caviar had been used instead of concrete, it may still smell less fishy than some of the other dealings surrounding these Games. Little gets done in brave new Russia without the right palms being greased with the right amount of rubles, and the impending arrival of the Olympic five-ringed circus seems to have sent the avarice into overdrive.

Transparency International, a global anti-corruption watchdog, started looking closely at the Sochi Olympics once the building projects got underway and budget predictions of an initial $10 billion skyrocketed. (For comparison, the Vancouver games held just three years ago logged in at a total cost of $7-$8 billion). The organization's research has found that any public project in Russia is affected by corruption that adds approximately 30 percent to the overall cost.

"With Sochi, you can say it is more like 50 percent or higher,” chief researcher Yuli Nisnevich told Yahoo! Sports. "It is an opportunity that the corrupt simply cannot resist."

All this bodes ill for the average Russian in the Sochi region. Spiraling costs mean the post-Olympic price for using the venues, more than 25 percent of which are still not completed, will likely be restricted to the tiny minority of the super wealthy, retaining the status quo that despite being one of the coldest and snowiest nations on earth, most Russians have no access to affordable skiing or winter sport facilities.

Putin has boasted of big plans for Sochi, such as a future Formula One motor race and even the hosting of a G8 summit. How serious is he? On Thursday the Washington Post reported Putin fired the vice president of Russia's Olympic committee because the ski jump was behind schedule. But just like his recent publicity stunt in awarding Russian citizenship to French actor Gerard Depardieu in a bid to encourage wealthy foreign tax exiles, these schemes appear either farfetched or harebrained.

Sochi residents don't quite know what to make of all this and it is fair to say that the Olympic glow hasn't exactly warmed their collective hearts.

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(Yahoo! Maps)

Most Olympic venues are ready, but in recent months, power outages thought to have been exacerbated by ongoing, widespread construction of hotels and other infrastructure has caused frustration.

The old days of the Soviet communist regime are gone but not forgotten and there remains an inherent reluctance in many Russians to speak out publicly against the government.

One Sochi resident, a male student and recreational athlete who asked not to be named, revealed some of the issues faced by everyday folk.

"The power keeps going out and for what?” he told Yahoo! Sports. "This doesn't help us. I love sports and most people love the Olympics. But it is hard to stay in love when it makes your life more difficult, when your power goes out, your prices go up, your traffic gets worse, and your taxes are spent on beautiful sports houses that you can't afford to visit and roads you don't want to drive on."

Visitors to Sochi may find things tough as well. Putin tries to portray a modernist approach wherever possible, but only last month one of his Sochi-based political allies caused further embarrassment when he revealed prospective spectators holding tickets to the Games would be subject to background checks to ensure they "are not a spy."

To compound Sochi's worries is a campaign by the Human Rights Watch organization to highlight alleged abuses of immigrant workers, mainly from former Soviet republics such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

"What we have found is that Russian authorities and companies involved in the preparations for Sochi have violated rights of workers," said Yulya Gorbunova of Human Rights Watch. "We have documented instances of workers not getting wages they were promised before they arrived. In some cases, they were not given contracts as required by Russian law."

Few Olympic Games experience trouble-free preparations, but with a year to go, a gaping financial black hole and a slew of ugly headlines, Sochi's image is sorely in need of a spring clean.

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