KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin told Olympic chiefs on Wednesday Russia would have its facilities ready in time to host the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, despite rising costs and concerns about corruption and humans rights abuses.
Putin led a top International Olympic Committee delegation on a tour of venues erected in the Caucasus mountains rising above the Black Sea resort city, a landscape honeycombed by construction activity.
“Overall, work is going according to plan,” said Putin, sporting sunglasses and a fur-collared black jacket on his inspection of ski-jumping facilities at Krasnaya Polyana, about 40 km (25 miles) outside Sochi.
“I have no doubt that all the sites will be ready on time and with the appropriate quality,” he told the IOC delegation, which included Jean Claude Killy, a former Olympic alpine skiing champion.
IOC President Jacques Rogge also toured sites built for the Sochi Games, which open on February 7 next year, and the visiting Olympic officials praised Russia’s preparations.
“I am impressed by the fantastic volume of work that has been undertaken,” IOC delegation member Gilbert Felli said.
Russia says, however, that the cost of staging the Games will reach $50 billion - almost five times more than the original price tag, putting Sochi on track to become the most expensive Olympic Games to date.
Putin also warned officials against allowing corruption to push costs even higher. “The main thing is that no one steals anything, so there are no unexplained increases in costs,” he was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying.
Grumbling from Russian billionaires who have poured millions of dollars into getting Russia ready for the Games have also grown louder.
For Putin, the Olympics is a prestige project that will put Russia at centre stage during his third presidential term, which began in May. He will want to ensure international criticism over environmental management and the rights of displaced homeowners do not tarnish the Games.
New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch said migrant workers being employed in the Olympics building boom were being cheated out of wages and denied adequate rest, food and housing.
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said the report was exaggerated and the IOC said that it had a Russian commitment to pursuing any cases of mistreatment or abuse that were clearly related to the staging of the Olympic Games.
Sochi’s skyline has been transformed by the 1.136 trillion roubles ($37.85 billion) already spent on the Games.
The Iceberg stadium, the jewel of the Olympic park, glows pale blue in the night, and an undulating steel-and-glass structure that will host the figure skating in 2014 is one of six stadiums rising up on the periphery of the city.
Huge concrete skeletons of unfinished buildings loom large, blocking out the coastline. The sound of construction clangs across the city centre, which is carved up by a jumble of fencing and road closures - frustrating some local residents.
“If you want to hear some foul Russian language at its best, just ask the locals about the Olympics,” a shop clerk who gave her name as Svetlana said in Adler, a town east of Sochi that is home to much of the planned Olympic infrastructure.
“They are telling us the Games are for us, but we will not benefit from them. What we are experiencing is huge traffic problems and high prices,” she said.
Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel