SOCHI, Russia — On his third day touring the venues of the 2014 Sochi Games, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach declared Monday, “The Olympic stage is ready for the best winter athletes of the world.”
But that stage is rife with tension that threatens to overshadow the achievements on the ice and snow once the competition gets underway Thursday, followed by Friday’s Opening Ceremonies.
Bach was queried about it all — terrorists’ threats, construction backlogs, unparalleled spending and human-rights concerns — during a news briefing at the seaside resort of Sochi, chosen seven years ago to host the Winter Games despite its subtropical climate. And in one fashion or another, the German lawyer and 1976 Olympic fencing champion who was elected to succeed IOC President Jacques Rogge in September played down any potential cause for alarm.
“Every big event is under threat, whether a political summit or another big convention, you name it,” Bach, 60, said when asked about security concerns in the wake of bombings by Islamic insurgents in December that left 34 dead in the North Caucasus region roughly 400 miles away.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is leveraging the Olympics to rebrand Russia as a global superpower, has responded by erecting a so-called “ring of steel” around Sochi for the duration of the Games. The presence of Russian security forces was as pervasive Monday as the sight of bulldozers and construction workers at a site that’s not quite ready for opening night, however well-fortified.
Roughly 45 minutes away, in the Krasnaya Polyana mountain resort that will host the skiing, sliding and snowboarding events, there were reports of arriving journalists finding their assigned hotel had never been built, while others were assigned to rooms that already were occupied, the shortage of available lodging so dire.
Bach said he empathized, knowing what it’s like to arrive after a long flight and find your room not ready. But he said that 97 percent of the accommodations promised by Russian organizers had been delivered, with no one left without some sort of room.
The 11th-hour scrambling to prepare for the Games despite a seven-year run-up is particularly difficult to understand given Sochi’s massive cost overruns. The Winter Olympics span fewer days and involved fewer sports and athletes than the Summer Olympics. Nonetheless, Russia reportedly has spent a record $51 billion to host the Sochi Games, $11 billion more than it cost to stage the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.
Bach dismissed a suggestion that Sochi’s exorbitant price tag might deter other world cities from bidding to host future Olympics, arguing that its operating budget didn’t exceed that of previous Winter Games. What ran up the tab, he said, was Russia’s decision to undertake a wholesale upgrade of the storied Black Sea resort in conjunction with the Games.
“These are not Olympic costs,” Bach said. “This is a transformation of a whole region.”
Bach was queried at length about whether the Olympic Charter needed revising in light of the controversial Russian anti-gay law that criminalizes the promotion of “nontraditional relations.” He said that likely would be discussed and debated in future meetings of IOC delegates.
“The Olympic Charter is not set in stone,” Bach said. “Of course we have to evolve and adapt to modern times.”
But he added that regardless of whether the IOC ultimately decided to add language banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the organization had made its stance against discrimination in all forms clear.
“We have done what we have to do to ensure the application of the Olympic Charter in the Olympic Games,” Bach said. “You can never avoid discussion about political issues. There is freedom of speech for everybody.”
Note: Torstein Horgmo was treated at a hospital after crashing Monday attempting a difficult trick on a rail near the top of the slopestyle snowboard course, and Norwegian media later reported Horgmo, a strong medal contender, had fractured his collarbone and was likely out of the Games. Because of the crash and complaints from other athletes, organizers are modifying the course. Competition begins there Thursday.