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The Sochi Olympics fall out of local favor

Russians complain about the games' cost, environmental impact.

The Sochi 2014 pavilion, Feb. 9, 2010. (Lyle Stafford/Reuters)

MOSCOW, Russia — The Russian government assured the public once again this week that preparations for the 2014 Sochi Olympics are on target. But as the rift between promise and reality grows, national support for the Olympics has started to flail.

The 2014 Sochi Olympics are widely seen as the government's sacred cow, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin willing to do whatever it takes to make them a success after traveling to Guatemala to personally lobby for the bid in 2007.

Three years later, the 185 billion ruble ($6.3 billion) price tag looks ominous compared to the state's withered budget, locals are increasingly agitated and environmental groups have distanced themselves from what they say is ad hoc development that will destroy one of Europe's last pristine habitats.

Even the state-run pollster WCIOM said this week that people's confidence in Russia's ability to organize the games has dropped by 8 percentage points, to 84 percent. Now Taimuraz Bolloyev, head of hte Olimpstroy corporation, which is managing all construction, has written two resignation letters, according to Russian Newsweek. He would be the third person to leave the post since 2007, but so far Putin is not willing to let him go, the magazine said.

Government officials like Putin and his deputy Dmitry Kozak, who is charged with overseeing preparations, still radiate optimism. "We have no fears that we will not build all of the Olympic structures on time and with high quality," Kozak said Wednesday.

But environmentalists are skeptical. Pyotr Gorbunenko, deputy director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), blamed the destruction of a new Sochi port by a winter storm on a lack of monitoring and earnest studies of the region's conditions and the construction's environmental impact. WWF and Greenpeace both consulted for Olimpstroy until this year, when they publicly distanced themselves from Olimstroy's meetings, saying their advice is being ignored. Without integrated assessment and monitoring, other environmental protection measures are pointless, Gorbunenko said, since no one understands how each construction site contributes to pollution and other damage.

The United Nations Environment Programme, whose experts visited Sochi in January, said in a March report that environmental impact assessments used out-of-date literature, while compensation for construction's impact is taking too long. A week after the report’s release, Olimpstroy met with the Russian Nature Protection Society, whose deputy head Elmurod Rasulmukhamedov declared willingness to "organize an assessment of compensation measures" Olimpstroy is developing, according to the corporation's press release.

Olimpstroy confirmed in an email that more than 270 million rubles have been set aside for environmental compensation, but said an integrated environmental assessment of all construction, which WWF is insisting on, would be "difficult to carry out" because "it cannot be done in one season with a few researchers."