Amid concerns about terrorism, complaints of unfinished hotels rooms, controversy over Russia’s law targeting gays and reports of a last-minute roundup and killing of stray dogs, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach on Monday proclaimed the 2014 Winter Olympics ready for competition.
Bach, presiding over his first Olympic Games, said “the Olympic stage is set for the athletes. The Olympic stage is ready for the best winter athletes in the world.”
“We can see it in the Olympic villages, which are all of very high quality and offer excellent conditions for the athletes,” he said.
But new questions about Russia’s readiness to host 6,000 athletes from 87 countries and tens of thousands of spectators have arisen ahead of Friday’s opening ceremonies after a series of new revelations.
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Three hotels slated to house journalists near the games’ mountain events aren’t finished, forcing Russian Olympic organizers to scramble to find suitable lodging for thousands of people who arrived in Sochi to find that they had no rooms.
While news of the unfinished hotels may have been an embarrassment for Russia’s Olympic committee and President Vladimir Putin, the driving force behind bringing the games to this subtropical city on the Black Sea, Bach said the situation wasn’t a major setback for the games.
He said 97 percent of the hotel rooms had been delivered on time and that only 3 percent of the rooms had problems that made them unavailable.
“I have some travel experience, and I know how embarrassing it is when you arrive after a long flight to a place where your room is not ready. I can feel with all the people concerned,” Bach said. “We were told everybody was offered a room of at least the same quality, where there was a problem. The other problems, which are technical ones, will be addressed.”
From the mountain areas to the Olympics’ coastal venue, it was clear that the race is on to complete the work on lodging and infrastructure before the games begin.
Even in facilities that are finished, some guests have complained about no or spotty wireless communication, televisions that don’t work, faulty hot water and problems with other amenities.
Some sites near games venues are still muddy messes of land with unsightly rubble or heavy construction equipment in plain sight.
In the last week, workers have gone into beautification overdrive, planting palm trees, flowers and other assorted greenery. What can’t be covered by nature is covered with wallpaperlike Olympic billboards.
IOC officials also have had to deal with a controversial cleanup effort by Sochi officials: the reported herding and killing of stray dogs in the city. Daily, thousands of dogs can be found roaming alone or in packs throughout the city and at Olympic sites.
ABC News reported that Sochi officials had hired a company to get rid of the animals before the tourists arrive. Alexei Sorokin, the head of the company, told ABC the dogs are “biological trash.”
“Imagine if during an Olympic Games a ski jumper landed 130 kilometers an hour (over 80 mph) and a dog runs into him when he lands,” Sorokin told the network. “It would be deadly for both a jumper and for the stray dog.”
IOC officials said Monday night in an email statement that the Russian Olympic organizing committee had told them that stray dogs were being handled humanely.
“All stray dogs that are found in the Olympic Park are collected by a professional veterinary contractor for the well-being of the people in the park and the animals themselves,” the IOC statement said. “The dogs are being handled by professional veterinary staff, who carry out a full health examination off-site and look to locate the relevant owner. All healthy animals are released following their health check.”
Animal rights groups doubt that Sochi’s strays situation is being handled with care. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wrote Sochi officials last April and urged them to handle the strays humanely.
Monday, a PETA official accused the Olympic city of animal cruelty.
“We understand Russia spent $50 billion for the Olympics in Sochi and animals are paying the price,” said Stephanie Bell, casework director for PETA’s Cruelty Investigations Department. “We are urging sports fans to contact the Russian embassy to demand an end to the massacre that’s tainting this sports celebration.”
Kelly O’Meara, the director of companion animals and engagement for Humane Society International, said: “Killing street dogs _ whether through poisoning, shooting or other means _ is not only inhumane but ineffective.”
“While Russia has the world’s attention more than ever with the Olympics around the corner, the current dog-killing program will only prove to rouse international outcry and taint the image of the country,” O’Meara said.
During his wide-ranging news conference Monday, Bach addressed two of the bigger issues that could eclipse the games: security and gay rights.
Bach said he was pleased with Russia’s efforts to protect athletes and spectators from a terrorist attack.
Two deadly suicide bombings in Volgograd in December, coupled with Chechnya’s proximity to Sochi and a call last July by Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov for his followers to use “maximum force” to disrupt the games, have made some athletes nervous and prompted some Americans to rethink traveling to the Olympics.
Putin has vowed to place a “ring of steel” around the Olympics, and Russian officials have said in recent days that there have been no terrorist threats aimed at the games.
“Every organizer has to make sure that the games are as safe as possible,” Bach said. “And here we have every confidence in the Russian authorities. They are cooperating with other services internationally. They are doing their utmost to have a safe and secure games.”
Bach also expressed confidence that Russia’s anti-propaganda law – widely regarded as an anti-gay measure – won’t affect the games. Approved last year, the law prohibits individuals from promoting “homosexual behavior” and spreading “propaganda of nontraditional relations” among minors.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights groups say they aren’t sure how Russian officials will react if groups or individual athletes or spectators protest the law.
“We have made it clear we stand against any kind of discrimination for whatever reason, be it gender, race, sexual orientation or whatever,” Bach said. “We have assurances from the Russian government and the president of the Russian Federation that the Olympic Charter and its principles will apply during the Olympic Games.”