SOCHI, Russia — The thicket of construction cranes, the enormous cable spools tossed here and there, the lengths of pipes and pallets piled along rutted roads — these might give the impression of a Russia unprepared for the Winter Olympics.
Not to worry.
“Of course we are prepared,” Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov said last month, confident about all the finishing touches.
Appearances notwithstanding, most of the Olympic venues have been declared ready. The big exception is Fisht Stadium, where 40,000 spectators will attend the opening ceremonies Feb. 7. It looked far from completion on a recent visit, with the roof unfinished and much concrete for the interior unpoured.
Failure is not an option. President Vladimir Putin reprimanded Akhmed Bilalov, vice president of Russia’s 2014 Olympics committee, on national television in February over delays in the completion of the ski jump complex. Bilalov fled the country.
“We have a very good coach,” the mayor said, adding that Putin doesn’t call him personally but frequently visits the venues. “The president of the Russian Federation is personally monitoring the project.’’
Pakhomov cheerfully fired off a long list of Sochi’s accomplishments, beginning with new power and water supplies for the whole region, 225 miles of roads, 25,000 additional hotel rooms. City Hall, on Soviet Street, was itself marooned within a construction zone, with a big fountain being dug in front and new walkways laid all around.
“We had nothing,” the mayor said. “We constructed everything from scratch.”
These Olympics, costing an estimated $51 billion, are the most expensive to date. The London 2012 Summer Games were estimated at near $19 billion, and Beijing’s 2008 Olympics were at about $43 billion.
Activists complain that the environment has paid the price. Construction waste has been dumped on hillsides, said Vladimir Kimayev, a leader of Environmental Watch in Sochi, increasing the threat of landslides and sending pollutants into the Mzymta River. And a promenade along the Black Sea was built too close to the water, he said, making the beach vulnerable to erosion. The promenade, he said, might well be washed away.
That, Pakhomov said, was impossible. “The project was approved by state experts,” he said. “If there were violations, it wouldn’t have been approved.”
In 2008, after extensive disputes with Russian Olympic authorities, environmental groups had managed to persuade Putin, who was prime minister at the time, to move the bobsled track and mountain Olympic village to a less damaging location. A period of close cooperation followed.
That ended in early 2010. “We had been having monthly meetings and agreed to many ways in which things could be done better,” said Igor Chestin, chief executive of WWF-Russia, part of the World Wide Fund for Nature global network. “Then nothing happened, so we withdrew from the whole process.”
The Olympic project moved ahead so quickly, Chestin said, that there was no time for a proper environmental impact study. The arenas for indoor events were built next to the Black Sea on land that had never been developed because it was too marshy.
Not only were animal habitats disrupted, mostly habitats of birds, amphibians, and reptiles, he said, the buildings were constructed on what may prove to be unstable foundations.
A road and railroad leading from the coastal cluster to the mountain site cost several billion dollars and will be little used after the Olympics, Chestin said. “Someone calculated it would have been cheaper to bring everyone in by helicopter,” he said.
Russia should have located the project elsewhere, he said, perhaps in the higher Altai Mountains of southern Siberia.
“The choice was very wrong,” he said. “In a country where 60 percent of the territory is covered by permafrost, they chose the tiny spot with a subtropical climate.”
The extravaganza has evoked both pride and disdain, as many things do in this country. Pakhomov belongs in the pride section, declaring that Sochi rightly deserves admiration for creating a world-class sea and mountain resort that will please money-spending tourists long after the Olympics.
“There are no miracles,” he said. “We put our work clothes on and got to it.”
An editorial last week in the respected Vedomosti newspaper reflected the skepticism, calling the flickering out of the Olympic torch symbolic of the state of Russian society, politics and economy.
The flame first died out Oct. 6, just after Putin lit it and sent it off to the Kremlin for the night; a nearby guard relit it with a cigarette lighter. Since then, it has died at least seven times along the relay route. Tweeters joked that when it goes into space, a rocket should follow carrying a lighter.
A factory in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk made 16,000 torches for a reported $6.4 million. It also produces parts for ballistic missiles, raising wider quality questions. Vedomosti quoted a blogger, Dmitri Gubin, as saying that the torches had set off a mixture of embarrassment, shame and malicious joy among Russians who see poor quality in cars and sputniks alike.
“We want to be proud of our country and win the competitions, but the preparations for the Games have been going on at our expense and without our participation,” Vedomosti wrote, “and whatever has been built there will surely break down.”
These Olympics, Pakhomov said, will introduce a new, dazzling Russia to the world.
“We are ready,” he said. “Now we are busy with the fountains and flowers. It’s like a woman putting on her lipstick.”