Russia deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, left, and Russian Olympic Committee President Alexander Zhukov, right,smile ahead of a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the opening of a center for fans of the Russian national team in Sochi on Thursday. Mr. Kozak dismissed complaints that hotels built for the Olympics weren’t ready in time. ZUMAPRESS.com
SOCHI, Russia—Rooms without doorknobs, locks or heat, dysfunctional toilets, surprise early-morning fire alarms and a Welcome Wagon of stray dogs: These are the initial images of the 2014 Winter Olympics that foreign journalists have blasted around the world from their officially assigned hotels—and the wave of criticism has rankled Russian officials.
Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister responsible for the Olympic preparations, seemed to reflect the view held among many Russian officials that some Western visitors are deliberately trying to sabotage Sochi’s big debut out of bias against Russia. “We have surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the shower, direct the nozzle at the wall and then leave the room for the whole day,” he said. An aide then pulled a reporter away before Mr. Kozak could be questioned further on surveillance in hotel rooms. “We’re doing a tour of the media center,” the aide said.
A spokesman for Mr. Kozak later on Thursday said there is absolutely no surveillance in hotel rooms or bathrooms occupied by guests. He said there was surveillance on premises during construction and cleaning of Sochi’s venues and hotels and that is likely what Mr. Kozak was referencing. A senior official at a company that built a number of the hotels also said there is no such surveillance in rooms occupied by guests.
Mr. Kozak toured the giant, gleaming new media center Thursday morning, marveling at the huge workspace built specially for the thousands of journalists who have come from around the world to cover the Games.
Asked about the widely reported problems with hotel rooms not being ready for guests, he was dismissive. “We’ve put 100,000 guests in rooms and only gotten 103 registered complaints and every one of those is being taken care of,” he said. (It wasn’t clear what Mr. Kozak was counting as a registered complaint.)
In a news conference, Mr. Kozak said he had no “claims against Western or Russian journalists who are doing their jobs.” Most of the critical views of the accommodations or preparations amount to “small imperfections in the Olympic facilities and tourist infrastructure,” Mr. Kozak said, noting that it wasn’t long ago that the entire Olympic area was an “open field.”
“The realization of such a project is an enormous victory for the entire country,” he said. “As we say in Russia, victors don’t get blamed.”
Vladimir Yakunin, president of the national rail operator Russian Railways, which built much of the infrastructure for the Games, including subcontracting on some accommodations that weren’t completed on time, attacked Western coverage as biased in a blog Thursday.
“I’m very offended that the closer we get to the opening of the Olympics, the more hysteria around Russia becomes inflamed in the Western media,” he wrote. “There’s not a word about the quality of the Olympic facilities, about the fact that the level of readiness of the Olympic infrastructure has no analogues in the world.”
To build the facilities for the roughly $50 billion Sochi Olympics, Russia has built nearly an entire city from scratch. Organizers completed all the sporting venues, including the hockey and figure skating arenas, well ahead of time, as well as two villages for the Olympic competitors—one in the mountains and one by the sea.
Indeed, some American athletes have been pleasantly surprised after all the reports of the problematic hotels. U.S. short-track speed skater Sugar Todd said she had heard the horror stories about accommodations, but she could barely muster a complaint about her own Olympic digs. When she arrived here last week for her first trip to the Games, she only noticed that her shared room was so spacious that it looked almost as if it were missing furniture.
“The doors all have doorknobs. The lights all have light bulbs,” she said. “The water is hot and running and doesn’t come out a strange color. So I’m feeling pretty good.”
Her long-track compatriot Brian Hansen only noticed a couple of small things that, he said, were never issues in Vancouver four years ago. “When we got here, there was no soap and no trash cans,” he said. “One other thing, there’s no place to put our luggage.” Needing far more than the single closet Hansen and Joey Mantia share, four bags of clothes and gear are strewed over the floor.
But while Sochi’s organizers completed the accommodations reserved for Olympic competitors and top Olympic officials well in advance, much of the housing and hotels for the media fell by the wayside, particularly in the mountain media village, one of the most problematic sites in the Olympic project. A number of hotels were simply not fully completed, with workers furiously painting and constructing bits of buildings in recent days.
Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s spokesman, responded to the outpouring of criticism in an interview with the Russian radio station Kommersant FM on Wednesday. He said that stray dogs were indeed a problem in Sochi but characterized the complaints about the hotels as a matter of taste.
“In fairness, I would ask everyone to recall the reports from international and our domestic media about various Olympics,” Mr. Peskov said. “Everywhere someone doesn’t like the food, someone doesn’t like the hotel, someone thinks the mattress is too hard, etc. That is, such complaints accompany all Olympics. But the guest is always right and the organizer is obliged to listen to these complaints.” He said he is sure Sochi’s organizers are working around the clock to fix the “flaws.”