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Olympics: Putin fires top official as Sochi countdown begins

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

President Vladimir Putin on Thursday fired a top official for delays in the construction of infrastructure for the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games as Russia began the one-year countdown to the opening.

Putin was set to oversee lavish ceremonies in the palm tree-lined Black Sea resort city late Thursday to mark one year until Russia hosts its first ever Winter Olympic Games.

The Kremlin chief has made the Games an instrumental part of a patriotic mission to promote Russia on the world stage but cost over-runs and reports of corruption have cast a shadow over the event.

In a clear bid to tackle the issue head-on in his typical tough-guy manner, Putin sacked a senior Russian Olympic Committee official over delays to the completion of the ski jumping complex.

Russian Olympics Committee deputy chief Akhmed Bilalov was fired after Putin on Wednesday personally asked who was responsible for the delay in the completion of the complex from 2011 to July this year.

"The decision about the sacking has been taken," Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak told reporters in Sochi.

"People who do not carry out their obligations to such an extent cannot lead the Olympic movement of our country," Kozak said.

In a major public humiliation, Bilalov has also lost his job as the head of the development of tourist resorts for the Northern Caucasus.

Putin had expressed his fury over the delay when he visited the Russkie Gorky ski jump complex on Wednesday.

"How can it be that the vice-president of the Olympics Committee is holding back the development?" Putin fumed when told about Bilalov's responsibility.

"Well done. You are really working well," he added sarcastically.

Russia kicked off the celebrations marking one year to the Games by unveiling countdown clocks in all its major cities from Moscow to the Far East.

Sochi is a seemingly unlikely host for the Winter Games with its temperate climate. Temperatures on Thursday in the city hovered around a balmy 14 degrees Celsius (57 degrees Fahrenheit).

However the skiing and ice events will be held high up in the much colder alpine mountains, with the authorities vowing to be well prepared in case the expected snow does not appear.

The Games are by far the biggest project that Russia has hosted since the fall of the Soviet Union. Kozak had earlier estimated that some $50 billion of state and private funds will be spent.

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

But despite the problems, 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," said Sochi 2014 organising committee president Dmitry Chernyshenko.

Organisers are under intense 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) 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.

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

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130207/olympics-putin-fires-top-official-sochi-countdown-begins