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Putin orders Oly VP fired for cost overruns

But, officials say Sochi on schedule

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SOCHI, Russia -- A year before the 2014 Winter Olympics are to begin, President Vladimir Putin has demanded that a senior member of the Russian Olympic Committee be fired, apparently due to cost overruns in host city Sochi -- a demand certain to be fulfilled.

The current price tag for the Sochi Games is 1.5 trillion rubles ($51 billion), which would make them the most expensive games in the history of the Olympics -- more costly even than the much-larger Summer Olympics held in London and Beijing.

The Games at the Black Sea resort of Sochi are considered a matter of national pride and one of Putin's top priorities.

The Russian president's decision came after he scolded officials over a two-year delay and huge cost overruns in the construction of the Sochi ski jump facilities. The official facing dismissal, Akmet Bilalov, had a company that was building the ski jump and its adjacent facilities before selling its stake to state-owned Sberbank last year.

During his tour of Olympic venues, Putin fumed when he heard that the cost of the ski jump had soared from 1.2 billion rubles ($40 million) to 8 billion rubles ($265 million) and that the project was behind schedule.

"So a vice-president of the Olympic Committee is dragging down the entire construction? Well done! You are doing a good job," Putin said Wednesday, seething with sarcasm.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak told reporters Thursday that Putin had recommended that the Russian Olympic Committee fire Bilalov, one of its six vice-presidents.

Despite these setbacks, Russian officials on Thursday went to great lengths to reiterate that everything in Sochi was now on schedule.

"As (International Olympic Committee) members and we stated yesterday, it is already clear that we have succeeded with this immense -- and possibly the most immense -- project in Russia's modern history," Kozak said.

Taking a cue from Putin, however, Russian officials sought to play down the high costs. Kozak said the government spent no more than 100 billion rubles ($3 billion) on the Olympic venues and the immediate infrastructure.

The government has spent a total of $13 billion so far, and expects to spend about $18 billion overall before the Games begin, Kozak has said previously.

Canada's chef de mission for the 2014 Games, Steve Podborski, was impressed by the venues and said most are essentially finished.

"I was really impressed at how compact the Games are," he said. "From the athletes village, if you've got a good arm, you can literally -- from the one (building) closest to the Bolshoi Ice Hockey Palace -- get a baseball over to the runway on the outside. It's phenomenally close together. And the rest of the venues are within 100 metres or 200 metres of each other in a great big circle."

Sochi organizers also sought to assuage fears that the 2014 Games may fall victim to a warm and snowless winter -- or a howling blizzard.

Temperatures at Sochi's Krasnaya Polyana ski resort hovered at 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius) on Thursday, and reached 66 degrees F (19 C) in the coastal city of Sochi. That's after a cold snap the previous week in which athletes competed in test events amid snowstorms as temperatures dipped to 20 degrees F (-6 C).

Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the local organizing committee, said Sochi boasts one of Europe's largest snow-making systems and also has equipment that can store snow throughout the summer and protect slopes and tracks from rain and fog. More than 400 snow-making generators will be deployed on the slopes.

He said Sochi has special equipment that can make snow even in temperatures up to 59 degrees (15 C).

"Snow will be guaranteed in 2014," Chernyshenko declared.

Warm temperatures and rain disrupted some of the snowboarding and freestyle skiing events at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

"There was great concern in Vancouver and we had to fight our way through a couple of challenges," Podborski said. "I suspect there was a bit of a bit of a wake-up call in terms of the mountain weather when they cancelled the slopestyle events.

"But when we were up there today, we were thinking, 'It's too bad they didn't take a shot at it,' because it looked pretty good up there."

-- CP-AP

Fast facts about Sochi

A quick look at Sochi, Russia, the host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics:

LOCATION: About 1,600 kilometres south of Moscow on the shore of the Black Sea, Sochi is at the foot of the Western Caucasus mountain region.

POPULATION: About 430,000 people. The city is part of the Krasnodar Region, which has a population of 5.1 million people.

VISITORS: Athletes from about 80 countries will participate in the Winter Olympics. Some 6,000 athletes and team members will be on hand in Sochi during the Games.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: About 13,000 media members will be accredited to cover the Games. An estimated three billion television viewers will watch the action around the world.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2013 C8

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