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Despite Critics, Russia Promises A Grand Olympic Spectacle

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Despite Critics, Russia Promises A Grand Olympic Spectacle

Despite Critics, Russia Promises A Grand Olympic Spectacle

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Russia is turning a beach town into a world class, winter sports venue. They're prepping the city of Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Sochi is on the Black Sea, a favorite resort of President Vladimir Putin; and it is now bristling with construction cranes as workers race to complete high-rise hotels and state-of-the-art venues for figure skating, speed skating and hockey.

Officials are brushing aside questions about the cost, as well as complaints from construction workers and people displaced by the headlong development. NPR's Corey Flintoff takes us on a tour.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: This is the Bolshoy Ice Dome, a gleaming new stadium for Olympic hockey. It sports a roof like a giant beetle shell, fashioned from thousands of glass panels that change colors at night.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: Inside, members of the builder's public relations team confidently point out the venue's 12,000 seats, and its luxury boxes for dignitaries. The guide notes that the venue has already been tested, with ice hockey matches and a full-scale ice show. From the plaza in front of the Bolshoy Dome, you can see the prow of the blue-glass, iceberg figure-skating palace and the steel skeleton of the Olympic stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies will be held.

Over at the Adler Arena, two giant Zambonis take a stately turn around the speed-skating oval. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The ice-resurfacing machines were not manufactured by Zamboni.] In the center of the track, the building director describes the technical ingenuity this required to maintain perfect racing ice and spectator comfort, in a subtropical climate that's nearly at sea level.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: Outside, the muggy weather of a Sochi spring is producing alternating pockets of mud and dust in the construction chaos that surrounds the finished buildings.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION NOISES)

FLINTOFF: Workers in orange hard hats swarm over the site with trucks and machinery. The amount of building to be finished before next winter is mind-boggling - hotels and apartment housing for the athletes, officials, volunteers and media. Much of the work is being done by workers from outside the region, including many who have made their way here from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. These workers are prized because they work hard, and they work cheap. But a recent report from Human Rights Watch says many of them are exploited by employers who don't provide the pay or the living conditions that they promise.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE CONVERSATION IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

FLINTOFF: This is the office of the human rights group known as Memorial, not far from the Olympic construction sites. Semyon Semyonov spends much of his time on the phone, trying to persuade subcontractors to pay workers who claim they were cheated. In this case, he's negotiating for two men from Uzbekistan, who say that they're owed for a month of work, finishing walls in a newly built hotel.

SEMYON SEMYONOV: (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: He says the workers signed a makeshift contract that doesn't conform to Russian labor law, and doesn't give them any legal protection. Some employers whittle away at the workers' wages by overcharging them for incidentals, such as $150 for the plastic security badge needed to get onto the job site.

Semyonov says the government estimates that there are around 16,000 migrants working on the Olympic venues. He says his experience suggests that the number could be at least three times that high because so few workers have contracts or other documents. The Human Rights Watch report quoted workers who said employers often withheld their wages, made them work 12-hour days with few days off, and sometimes kept them from leaving by confiscating their passports and documents. Workers aren't the only ones complaining.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION VEHICLES)

FLINTOFF: The Olympic venues gobbled up land where people had been living for generations. Many say they haven't been fairly compensated for the land, or the quality of life, that they lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARKING DOG)

FLINTOFF: Every so often, the Saltykov family dog goes out to bark at the earth-moving machines that roll incessantly outside their windows. Yulia Saltykova says her family wasn't exactly displaced by the new, multilane highway that's part of the Olympic construction. Instead, the authorities simply built the highway right up to the edge of the Soviet-era apartment barracks that they share with several other families. The residents are now trapped between the highway and a railroad track. And when the highway is completed, they say, they will no longer have access to their own property.

YULIA SALTYKOVA: (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: We're like animals in a cage, she says. We wrote letters and made appeals to everyone, including President Putin, she adds, but no one offered any help. Some people whose houses were actually bulldozed for the construction did receive small, newly built apartments. Many of them say the space they were given can't accommodate the big, extended families who lived together in their old neighborhoods. Sochi's mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov, says the progress the city has made far outweighs the social cost.

MAYOR ANATOLY PAKHOMOV: (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: He points to the new airport, the new power plant and the tourist facilities that he says will provide good jobs for decades to come. The mayor says the housing situation for displaced people will improve, too, once the city gets possession of the housing that the government is building for Olympic officials, athletes and volunteers.

The Sochi Winter Games will be the most expensive Olympics in history. Total costs are expected to exceed $50 billion, about two and a half times the cost of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Even critics of the government acknowledge that the world will get a spectacular show next February, but they say the hidden cost is a story of reckless development and corruption.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

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