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Sochi Olympics: Fisht stadium still unfinished for opening/closing ceremonies

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No news is not necessarily good news – especially when it comes to the marquis monument of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

On Monday, Russia’s prime minister Vitaly Mutko updated all on the progress leading up to the start of the Winter Games on February 7th, a mere 45 days away. He confirmed sports venue readiness, reassured that snow will not be an issue, and acknowledged lodging construction delays. “Overall, the level of preparation is very high. All the infrastructure is ready,” said Mutko, as reported by the R-Sport sports news agency.

Not unsurprisingly, no status was issued about Fisht Stadium - the crucial complex that not only will welcome 120,000 visitors to these Games, but will strengthen Russia’s stature in the world community, it is hoped.

This notable silence speaks volumes, not only among the estimated billion international Olympics followers, but among the hundreds of politicians worldwide who are jumping at the chance to once more criticize the Russian government, already under fire across several fronts.

Construction Challenges

Ever since stadium construction plans were first charted in 2009, this landmark has been shrouded in secrecy. Exemplifying a country still struggling to emerge from behind the proverbial red curtain that has doubled as a shield to outsiders, this icon’s construction status has been recently described by officials in enigmatic, defensive postures: “of course we are prepared” and “the stadium will be ‘completed’ soon.”

The original schedule targeted this 40,000 seat stadium to be finished by August 2013. By doing so, sufficient time would be allowed for finessing the venue’s features, and for fine-tuning the opening and closing ceremony extravaganzas.

Yet, befitting a widespread and endemic business culture of corruption and graft, construction has languished, while expenses have skyrocketed. From the initial estimate of $344 million, the costs have nearly tripled to over $1 billion, as reported by several news outlets. Claims of misappropriated funds and work slowdowns, geared towards driving up increased revenues within these contractor coffers, have been pinned on Olympistroi - the "state corporation for construction of Olympic venues.”

Compounding this corporate crookedness have been rampant design changes – which have mired decision-making, delayed construction, and also increased expenses. With an eye on safety and a focus on entertainment, the stadium’s structure has morphed from an open-roofed, giant snowflake design, to a parallel set of huge snow mounds separated by a retractable roof.

The general director of the state-owned broadcaster Channel One, Konstantin Ernst, who has assumed the role of the lead producer for these two ceremonies, initially outlined his visions of grandeur. Contractors soon responded, during a year-long erection process, to construct the roof complete with nine computer-controlled, overhead railways that can transport elaborate equipment to enhance lighting and launch fireworks.

Punitive Putin

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has invested his heart and soul into this colossal Olympics showcase, last inspected this work in progress on December 1. At the time, he rationalized the delay, "This is because the equipment needs to be installed, and all the necessary preparatory work has to be done."

He further praised Ernst, in what some believe is a backhanded swipe, by stating, “Because the stadium was made in accordance with your scenario of opening and closing ceremonies, in many ways [you are] the real architect.”

On the heels of Putin’s remarks, the International Olympics Committee is on high alert. IOC president Thomas Bach, said, “We have to realize that there is not a single moment to lose, that every effort has to be made every day to bring the construction of Olympic sites and infrastructure forward.”

According to a Los Angeles Times article, the IOC's Coordination Commission chairman, Jean-Claude Killy, was scheduled to visit Sochi last week to inspect the progress. Presumably, he led a contingent that would not only assess the structure’s readiness but also its safety – given the frenzied schedule in recent months that has construction staff working around the clock.

Since these early December statements, no press release has been issued by the IOC nor the Sochi Olympics Organizing Committee about when the stadium will be fully completed, if at all.

A Show to Remember ?

Ernst’s ambitions are not only being tested, but so is the patience among his performance troupes eager to strut their stuff in the big show. Because the stadium is inaccessible, hundreds of performers have been forced to rehearse in the nearby Bolshoi Ice Dome, a newly built ice hockey venue that is a mere one-fourth the size of Fisht. They make do the best they can, striving to simulate the real show.

In past Olympic Games, several weeks of artistic and technical rehearsals were required, both separately and then jointly, to prepare for this extravaganza. For instance, the specially built Olympic stadium for the London Olympics was opened to the public in March, 2012 – about five months before the quadrennial showcase’s start.

"If the stadium's opening is delayed, the ceremony's script will have to be changed, which will lead to immeasurable reputational and moral losses," said auditor Alexander Piskunov, according to the Moscow Times.

Just more fuel to add to the political fire that is now raging.

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