Residents of the Olympic host city are enduring dire living conditions as Russia scrambles to prepare for the Winter games
Type ‘Sochi’ into Google and you can see the Russian marketing machine in full motion. Today saw the Olympic torch blasted into space inside a Spayuz rocket, headed for the International Space Station. Its launch is the showpiece event of a rebranding exercise by Russia, which is contributing to a reported overall cost of £31 billion.
The Games are coming, but many of Sochi’s locals will be too demoralised to be excited. Residents unfortunate enough to be in the path of the bulldozers are living by candlelight and without running water – and those are the ones lucky enough to still be in their homes. Some families whose homes have become uninhabitable have been given no compensation or relocation because Olympic-related construction did not require the complete destruction of their houses.
When a landslide caused severe damage to one Sochi family’s house, the city’s emergency situations committee ordered a construction company working on power cables for the Olympics to compensate the family. But a district court ruled that “natural factors” caused the slide and the company paid nothing. The company then accused of inhabitants of trying to take advantage of the situation.
Human Rights Watch estimates that around 2,000 people have been displaced in preparation for the Olympics, many illegally, and not all of them have been found new accommodation. Some of those relocated have been given small dormitories far too small for some families to live in, the organisation says.
Spiralling costs have also been a thorn in the side of Olympic organisers, exemplified by the $50 million construction the Fisht Stadium. Built only for the opening and closing ceremonies rather than any of the sporting events, it is described on the Olympic website as displaying “an appearance of snowy peaks, ensuring it sits in harmony with the landscape of the Imeretinskaya Valley and the Caucasus Mountains”. But frequent delays and alterations have turned the project into a race against time with only 3 months to go until the Games begin.
Russia’s buildup to the Olympics has been wretched as the state’s PR machine fights to combat evidence of human rights abuses covering just about every area possible. Last week, Vladimir Putin told Thomas Bach, the head of the International Olympic Committee, that gay and lesbian athletes would be welcome at the games, despite Moscow passing a law banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors”.
The outcry over Russia’s anti-gay legislation has led for calls to boycott the Olympics, though Bach, apparently persuaded by Putin’s reassurances, insisted that a boycott was contrary to the Olympic spirit. “Boycotts are a fundamental contradiction to the spirit of sport, depriving it of the means to continue working for peace, mutual understanding, and solidarity,” he said on Wednesday.
HRW has listed a catalogue of other concerns over the country as the games approach, including harassment and intimidation of journalists, the arrest of the leader of an environmental group critical of the Olympics, and the rounding-up and expulsion of migrant workers.
For many people in Sochi the Olympics began as something exciting before turning into something either tiresome, worrying or terrifying. Construction dust permeates the air and constant traffic jams disrupt the lives of the city’s workers. Despite the city paying around $640 million on relocation, whilst promising new jobs, the picture is of a city’s population both trampled and forgotten.