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Despite Critics, Russia Promises A Grand Olympic Spectacle

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As Russia prepares to host the world for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, it faces a number of challenges: The weather is mild for winter sports; residents are complaining about being displaced; and the project is costing a huge amount of money.

Yet the Black Sea resort town, a favorite of President Vladimir Putin, is bustling with construction cranes. Workers are racing to complete high-rise hotels and state-of-the-art venues for figure skating, speedskating and hockey.

Officials are brushing aside questions about the costs, while Olympstroy, the Russian state corporation that oversees the project, is proud to show off its crown jewels, such as the Bolshoy Ice Dome, a gleaming new stadium for hockey.

The roof resembles a giant beetle shell, fashioned from thousands of glass panels that change colors at night. Inside, members of the builders' public relations team 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.

Over at the Adler Arena, two giant Zambonis take a stately turn around the speed-skating oval.

In the center of the track, the building director describes the technical ingenuity that's required to maintain perfect racing for ice and spectator comfort in a subtropical climate that's nearly at sea level.

A Massive Construction Site

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

Workers in orange hard hats swarm 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 considered hard-working and inexpensive, but a recent report from Human Rights Watch says many are exploited by employers who don't provide the pay or the living conditions that they promise.

Disputes Between Builders, Workers

Semyon Semyonov is the local director for the Russian human rights group Memorial.

He spends much of his time on the phone at the group's office, not far from the Olympic construction sites, trying to persuade subcontractors to pay workers who claim they were cheated.

On a recent afternoon, he negotiated for two men from Uzbekistan who say they're owed for a month of work, finishing walls in a newly built hotel.

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 about 16,000 migrants working on the Olympic venues.

He estimates 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.

Residents Are Displaced

Workers aren't the only ones complaining. 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.

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, multi-lane highway that's part of the Olympic construction.

Instead, the authorities simply built the highway right up 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.

"We are like animals in a cage," Saltykova says. "We wrote letters and made appeals to everyone, including President Putin, but no one offered any help."

Some people whose houses were actually bulldozed for the construction did receive small, newly built apartments.

Many 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.

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, more than double the cost of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

Even critics of the government say that the world will get a spectacular show next February, but they say the hidden cost is a story of reckless development and corruption.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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