PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN today vowed that Russia would justify expectations when it hosts the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in one year, after ruthlessly firing an official blamed for delays in building infrastructure.
The Black Sea resort city celebrated the one year countdown to the opening ceremony on 7 February, 2014 with a show at the Bolshoi Ice Dome rink attended by Putin and Olympic movement chiefs.
Famed Russian figure skaters like Irina Slutskaya took to the ice, Cossacks danced with Circassians from the Caucasus mountains and clowns showed off their tricks in a glitzy ceremony.
The Kremlin chief has made the Games an instrumental part of a patriotic mission to promote Russia on the world stage but cost over-runs and reports of corruption have cast a shadow over the event.
“The works in Sochi have had no precedent in the history of Russia or the Olympic movement,” Putin told the ceremony. “We all know how important it is to believe and move towards one’s dream,” said Putin.
By awarding the Winter Games to Russia for the first time, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) “supported the dreams of millions of Russians. And we will do everything to justify this trust.”
IOC chief Jacques Rogge said he was confident that Russian officials would be able to complete the massive infrastructure works on time.
“I have no doubt that Sochi will be ready,” said Rogge, personally thanking Putin for his “unwavering commitment”.
In a clear bid to tackle concerns about delays in his typical tough-guy manner, Putin sacked a senior Russian Olympic Committee official over delays to the completion of the ski jumping complex.
Russian Olympics Committee deputy chief Akhmed Bilalov was fired after Putin had yesterday asked who was responsible for the delay in the construction of the complex from 2011 to July this year.
(Ahmed Bilalov – Pic: Michel Euler/AP/Press Association Images)
“The decision about the sacking has been taken,” Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak told reporters in Sochi.
“People who do not carry out their obligations to such an extent cannot lead the Olympic movement of our country,” Kozak said.
In a major public humiliation, Bilalov has also lost his job as the head of the development of tourist resorts for the Northern Caucasus.
Putin had expressed his fury over the delay when he visited the Russkie Gorky ski jump complex yesterday.
“How can it be that the vice-president of the Olympics Committee is holding back the development?” Putin fumed when told about Bilalov’s responsibility.
“Well done. You are really working well,” he added sarcastically.
Russia earlier kicked off the celebrations marking one year to the Games by unveiling countdown clocks in all its major cities from Moscow to the Far East.
Tickets also went on sale to Russians and foreigners living in Russia, with prices starting from approximately €12.50 and rising to approximately €1,235, the organising committee said.
The Games are by far the biggest project that Russia has hosted since the fall of the Soviet Union. Kozak had earlier estimated that some $50 billion of state and private funds will be spent.
That price tag would make them more expensive than the record-setting 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.
Palm tree-lined Sochi is a seemingly unlikely host for the Winter Games with its temperate climate. Temperatures today hovered around a balmy 14 degrees Celsius.
However the skiing and ice events will be held high up in the much colder alpine mountains, with the authorities vowing to be well prepared in case the expected snow does not appear.
The Sochi Games offer the Kremlin a chance to showcase Russia as a booming country with top-flight facilities and ambitions to re-establish its Soviet-era domination in sport.
“The Games will show the face and character of a new modern and changing Russia,” said Sochi 2014 organising committee president Dmitry Chernyshenko.
But Putin’s administration was rocked yesterday by a scathing report from the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) group that accused Russian officials of abusing migrant workers during venue construction.
The head of the Sochi migration service called the charges “a made-up issue”.