Photo by AP/Wideworld
Environmental groups claim Winter Olympic construction companies are inappropriately disposing waste around Sochi, despite Vladimir Putin's 'zero-waste' pledge to win the games.

Sochi, a remote city on Russia's Black Sea coast, required a new highway and railroad to serve hundreds of thousands of guests for the 2014 Winter Olympics. These two projects alone cost as much as the entire construction budget of the 2010 Vancouver games, say event observers and activists.

"We compared the highway to similar projects in the developed world and found it to be 1.9 times what it should have cost," says Vladimir Ashurkov, executive director of one activist group, the Moscow-based Anti-Corruption Foundation. It reported in January that, based on official documents it acquired, the Sochi Olympics cost $45.8 billion. "This road-and-railway facility cost $8.7 billion and helped [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's cronies Vladimir Yakunin, Arkadiy Rotenberg and Gennadiy Timchenko to get hold of the money," Ashurkov says.

Construction spending also has not met stringent Olympic guidelines for sustainability, says Greenpeace Russia, which accused contractors of dumping waste in a protected area near a Sochi groundwater supply. Putin promised "zero waste" when bidding to win the 2014 games. Greenpeace identified Russian Railways, of which Yakunin is president, as the main culprit in this dumping. Construction ministry officials could not be reached.

Apart from the billions it received from federal coffers, Russian Railways spent $2 billion of its own money, says the anti-corruption group. But it also claims the construction impacts to areas around Sochi are at the expense of the Russian people. "These funds cannot be considered private because these are rates paid by customers of monopolies: railway fares, electricity and gas tariffs," Ashurkov says.

Despite criticism of the costs, venue construction participants say Russia has delivered sustainable and state-of-the-art sports stadiums. New York City-based AECOM was hired to review designs of six Olympic venues for Rusnano, a state-owned nanotechnology firm. "One of Putin's agendas was to promote nanotechnologies for these games, and the six venues we worked on, including Olympic Stadium and the bobsled arena, incorporated glass, coatings, paints and lighting that feature nanotechnologies," says Andrew Parkman, AECOM director of building engineering for Russia.

But other sources in Sochi noted what seemed to be inappropriate practices and an eerie atmosphere. "I saw light construction waste being burned in the Olympic Park, including palettes," says a Los Angeles mechanical engineer who worked on a project in Sochi's Olympic Park and asked for anonymity because of his contract. "Dust and debris were removed from the site, and we didn't know where it was going." Greenpeace also claims inappropriate burning of waste.

Activists further claim mistreatment of immigrant workers, especially from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc. "Many of these were illegal immigrants," Ashurkov says. This made it easy for Russian firms to renege on payments, says Human Rights Watch. It said interviewed migrant laborers claimed employers "cheated workers out of wages, required them to work 12-hour shifts with few days off, and confiscated passports and work permits, apparently to coerce workers to remain in exploitative jobs."

But the unnamed engineer says, "The crew that we worked with was Russian and seemed to be well paid and have good morale. " He adds, "Our project went very smoothly, almost eerily smoothly. You could feel the pressure that some crews were under. It takes a pretty high caliber of engineering and construction contractor to build stadiums, and it seemed some of these guys were in over their heads."

While many international subcontractors worked in Sochi, no main contracts went to overseas firms, Ashurkov says, claiming anti-competitive bidding. But he says his group's statements have come at a price, with the Kremlin targeting critics of the construction and its financing. "Our offices have been raided, and we worry about retaliation," he says. "Some money has been lost as a result of bad management and [contractor] inexperience, but mostly we think [it] has simply been stolen."