Russian president Vladimir Putin, right, visited Olympic sites Wednesday but did not address reported construction delays and power outages. (David Goldman / Associated Press)
Sochi, Russia — President Vladimir Putin says Russia is ready, at long last, to host the Winter Games.
It has taken seven years and more money than any country has ever spent on any Olympics.
The Olympic zone on the Black Sea shore still looks like a construction zone. Some hotel rooms aren’t finished, just two days before the opening ceremonies. And electricity outages occasionally disrupt the intense security measures.
But Putin, who has made the Feb. 7-23 Sochi Olympics a centerpiece of his presidency, addressed none of that Wednesday on a visit to Olympic sites. Russian news agencies quote him as saying “Russia is ready to host the games.”
If there's a theme song to these Sochi Winter Olympics, it will definitely include the relentless beep-beep-beep of machinery being backed up, perhaps played over the backdrop of droning buzz saws.
From the Black Sea resort of Sochi to the snow-draped peaks dwarfing the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, Olympic fervor is mounting as thousands of workers scramble to finish grandiose projects. This isn't polishing the silver or closing out a punch list. This is full-blown construction, with the Opening Ceremonies on Friday and the first full day of competition Saturday.
Backhoes and dump trucks weave between buses full of reporters. Hotels seem weeks away from opening. Tile saws send dust spewing from restaurant doors draped in "Coming Soon!" posters. Roadways are clogged with cranes erecting street lights alongside crews installing guard rails.
Canopies shield both massive construction sites and flimsy worker housing. (The baffling Olympic slogan "Hot. Cool. Yours." decorates canopies and a few banners; as if the multi-temperature "Hot Pockets" were a huge sponsor.) Dozens of new chairlifts and gondolas climb slopes scarred with near-vertical avenues of downed timber. The mud and debris-choked Mzymta River — looking very much like it recently weathered a great flood — gurgles through the no-longer-quaint mountain village of Krasnaya Polyana. The recent $2.6 billion investment in the valley has left the town shadowed by canyons of Vegas-like facades. The valley floor, reeking of mud and fresh cement, is a vibrant hive of workers and security guards, the former scurrying while the latter menacingly linger and pace the aisles of speedy trains.
Despite it all, Krasnaya Polyana is a staggeringly beautiful setting. Toothy alpine ridges of precipitous snow punch horizons. Peaks are lined with chairlifts and gondolas that stretch for miles.
This much is certain: once the world sees Krasnaya Polyana on television the next three weeks, the formerly secret mecca for steep-loving, powder-hunting skiers and snowboarders will be exposed.
But after nearly eight years to get ready, the final, round-the-clock push smacks of desperation and poor planning.
Some hotels, such as the Gorki Grand in the freshly cobble-stoned, made-from-scratch mountainside Gorki Village, appear months away from opening, despite being sold out for the Games.
Visitor tales of lodging nightmares abound. Stranded travelers, lost reservations, hotels that accepted money but aren't open. Casual meetings on the street quickly devolve into tales of one-upmanship. Sleeping on a couch and cold showers, that's nothing. We've got exploding electrical outlets. For most mountain-area visitors, they are the first to ever bunk in their freshly-minted hotel rooms. Not so in Sochi and its suburb of Adler, where concrete utilitarian hotels built decades ago aren't enlivened by dead-flower coats of paint.
In an area already overbooked for the coming show, unfinished hotels have pushed guests elsewhere. But there is no elsewhere to go. Cruise ships are steaming into the Black Sea, offering floating housing. Lobbies of soon-to-be luxury hotels — especially in the gondola-accessed, newly built Gorki Village perched on the valley wall with panoramic views — are clogged with vents, machinery and cardboard boxes.
The venues, while rough around the edges, especially for spectators, are ready for competition. The courses are sculpted and daunting, from the steep alpine downhill to the lung-bursting cross-country venues. And, there's plenty of snow.
"I've seen other Olympics that were in much worse shape at this point and you are wondering how they could ever pull it together," said NBC producer Billy Matthews, who has produced every Olympics for the network since 1988, including the Winter Games in Torino and Vancouver. "Sure, it seems like it's a little behind schedule but there is time. In Athens, they were still building while were on the air. Yes, there will be a lot of stuff that won't be finished in time, but as far as the venues and the competition, it's all ready. The stuff at home that people will see will look fine. Behind the scenes, there are restaurants not built and hotels that won't open."