With a race against the clock to complete building works, threats of militant attacks and a controversy over an anti-gay law, Russia faces an unprecedented challenge to defeat its sceptics and hold a successful Winter Olympics in 100 days time.
Italian bobsleigh team, Lukas Gschnitzer (front) and Giorgio Berdini train on October 15, 2013, in the French Alpine resort of La Plagne for the 2014 Winter Olympics games in Sochi
The holding of the Winter Olympics in Russia’s southern city of Sochi, one of the most ambitious projects in the history of the Olympic movement, has been championed by President Vladimir Putin as a showcase for the modern post-Soviet face of the country.
The Games from February 7 to 23, 2014, will mark a series of firsts and superlatives –- the most expensive Olympics ever and the first Olympics of any kind in the ex-USSR.
The Black Sea port has long been a popular beachside holiday destination for Russians and was already developing alpine resorts in the mountains above. But Russia has faced the colossal task of building most of the stadiums, hotels and other infrastructure from scratch.
Both the coastal sites which will host events like ice skating and the opening ceremony and the mountain cluster where skiing and other high-altitude sports will take place still resemble building sites as workers hurry to finish the facilities on time.
The International Olympic Committee says that Russia will be ready despite the immensity of the task that has required a total budget of $50 billion, the biggest in Olympic history.
To create Olympic standard facilities in a location that until recently was no more than a low-key winter sports venue, Russia has had to build new roads, an airport and railway lines as well as sports infrastructure.
“It was an extraordinary challenge of a kind that we have not seen in the Olympics, to organise a Games with only 10-15 percent of the facilities and infrastructure built,” said former French skier Jean-Claude Killy, head of the IOC’s Sochi coordination committee.
One thing the organisers cannot control is the weather –- there have been fears of lack of snow even in the mountains -- but nothing has been left to chance, with Russia stockpiling snow over the last winter just in case.
'Boycott the Sochi Games'
Sochi’s balmy resort climate belies its location close to a volatile area: the city lies at the foot of the Caucasus mountains which have become a hotbed of Islamic militancy and is barely half an hour’s drive from the Georgian rebel region of Abkhazia.
Russia is planning to launch a huge security operation to ensure the safety of visitors and participants at the Games, with 37,000 police expected to be deployed in and around the city.
Concerns about security intensified in July when wanted Islamist rebel leader Doku Umarov called for attacks on the Sochi Olympics which he said were being held “on the bones of our ancestors”.
A suspected female suicide bomber blew herself up on a bus packed with students in the southern Russian city of Volgograd on October 21, killing six people and raising security fears ahead of the Olympics.
Russian security experts have revealed that Russia is also planning to deploy a massive surveillance programme to eavesdrop on communications which appears to be aimed not just at the Islamist underground.
Russia’s hosting of the Games has in many ways turned into a massive gamble -- while the Kremlin wants to showcase a new face of the country, the event risks being overshadowed by a bubbling controversy over human rights.
Putin in June signed into law a bill banning the dissemination of gay propaganda to minors, an apparent attempt to buttress so-called “family values” which caused a global furore that appeared to take the authorities by surprise.
The Sochi Olympics rapidly became the focal point of opposition to the law, with the hashtag #boycottSochi becoming a leading Twitter trend, activists around the world boycotting Russian vodka and actor Stephen Fry –- ironically a popular figure in Russia –- making a well-publicised call for Russia to be stripped of its right to host the Games.
In August Putin also signed a vaguely-worded decree banning any protests in Sochi during the Olympics unless they were related to the Games –- a move activists fear could be used against any attempts to hold gay rights protests.
'Respect for equality and diversity'
The clampdown on civil society since Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012, the use of the legal system to punish political foes and even Russia’s increasingly assertive foreign policy are all likely to come under the microscope during the Games.
The build-up to the Games themselves has also been marred by allegations of rights abuses, with complaints of forced evictions, expulsion of migrants and environmental destruction.
When the Olympic flame arrived in Russia in October, Putin sought to take on Russia’s critics, saying that the Games would be hosted “with respect for equality and diversity” in line with “the ideals of the Olympic movement."
Russia’s performance in the sporting events themselves is also a major concern for the political elite with a public used to the Red Machine’s all-conquering exploits in Soviet times hungry for home success.
After a disastrous performance at the last Winter Games in Vancouver, Russia is targeting a “podium” of third place on the overall medals table, according to Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko.
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