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Olympics: Cost-conscious Putin inspects Sochi venues

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Russian President Vladimir Putin cautioned officials against cost overruns Wednesday as he inspected venues for the Winter Olympic Games that will kick off in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in a year's time.

The sports-mad Kremlin chief -- pivotal in bringing the Games to the palm-lined summer resort in 2007 against strong odds -- enquired whether the project was running within the budget while touring facilities with his most trusted Olympic advisers.

Olympic organisers admitted that both cost and scheduling targets had been missed because of bureaucratic mismanagement.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak told Putin the ski jump facility was more than two years behind schedule and had cost eight billion rubles ($265 million) as opposed to the projected 1.2 billion rubles ($40 million) to complete.

Putin urged organisers to keep within guidelines while not openly criticising them for the massively overrun budgets and schedules that are highly embarrassing to the Kremlin.

"Cost increases are possible during construction -- but they must be justified," Putin said in televised remarks.

"The most important thing is making sure that no one stole anything -- so that there is no groundless rise in cost."

"I very much hope that despite all the technical difficulties, everything will be commissioned on time," he added.

The 60-year-old Russian leader was shown sporting dark glasses as he inspected the site of the Sochi bobsleigh facility -- itself the subject of a graft probe begun by the authorities last year.

Organisers also unveiled a set of 19-by-9 metre (62-by-30 foot) Olympic rings that are slightly larger in size than the ones decorating London's Tower Bridge during the 2012 Summer Games.

Kozak had earlier estimated that some $50 billion of state and private funds will be spent on the Games.

That price tag would make them more expensive than the record-setting 2008 summer event in Beijing.

But officials voiced confidence that all the facilities and the accompanying buildings and roads would be finished on schedule.

"We are currently continuing to finish off the surrounding infrastructure," Sochi 2014 organising committee president Dmitry Chernyshenko was quoted as telling Putin by Interfax news agency.

Organisers have been left red-faced by the budget overruns as they are under pressure to present Russia in a positive light at a time of deteriorating relations with the West.

The Sochi Games offer the Kremlin a chance to showcase Russia as a booming country with top-flight facilities and ambitions to reestablish its Soviet-era domination in sport.

But Putin's administration was rocked on Wednesday by a scathing report from the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) campaign group that accused Russian officials of abusing migrant workers during venue construction.

HRW chronicled cases of workers being cheated of wages and having their passports and work permits confiscated so they were held virtual prisoners.

"Exploiting workers is a victory for no one, and Russia urgently needs to change course," associate Europe and Central Asia director Jane Buchanan said in a statement.

The head of the Sochi migration service called the charges "a made-up issue".

The Sochi extravaganza will mark the Games' first return to Russia since the Soviet era.

A 1980 Summer Olympic event in Moscow was boycotted by the United States and most of its allies at the height of the Cold War because of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130206/olympics-cost-conscious-putin-inspects-sochi-venues-0