Reports of problematic work conditions in Sochi could spell trouble for the Olympics

Putting the Winter Olympics in Sochi was always an ambitious plan, as the small (343,334 people in 2010) Russian resort town on the Black Sea had little infrastructure when the Games were initially awarded in 2007. A massive building campaign has been undertaken since, but some reports suggest the construction hasn't gone as smoothly as Russian authorities claim. Snowboardcross/skicross course builder Johnnie Balfour, a former Australian Army soldier who's lived in Canada for most of the decade, picked up his training at North Vancouver's Cypress Mountain, works in the Vancouver film industry during the summer and helped build the courses for the 2010 Winter Olympics, is over in Sochi to help build the courses for these Games. Balfour posted some disturbing updates about the state of things in Sochi on his Tumblr, but they appear to have since been removed; however, they've been preserved thanks to Fox Sports Australia and Reddit. From Fox:

"Nothing is finished here and there is piles of garbage everywhere," Balfour wrote on his tumblr blog, confirming its contents with via email.

"Muddy water is pouring off the mountain and flowing through the streets and the cobblestone pavers are all lifting up or disappearing into sink holes.

"This entire place was built in the last few years, it looks nice at first glance but look a little closer and you can see that it was just thrown together.

"Most of the buildings are not finished and with only two weeks to go before the Games start, they never will be finished. It is pouring rain and close to 10 degrees above zero. The little snow they have is rapidly disappearing."

He wasn't exactly impressed with his accommodation either.

"The toilet flushes muddy water, there is no hot water, the shower floor is covered in dirt and mud, there was piss all over the toilet, the water is undrinkable (it's brown), it's even sketchy to brush your teeth with it and the idea of having internet in this place is a joke," he wrote.

Balfour's post on Reddit discusses many of the same problems, but also goes on to talk about the payment issues they've encountered:

We are seated around a big table in a boardroom. At the head of the table is the sport manager, his assistant and another big wig who we are never introduced to. At the other end of the table are the two head builders, Nicko and David. The rest of the table is surrounded by the six of us and we have big issues that need to be addressed. Hot water, accomodation, the commute, food etc are all briefly discussed before we get onto the biggest issue. How they propose to pay us.

In the six months leading up to this moment, we have been in constant contact with these people, sorting out contracts, methods of payment etc. So far nothing has gone as planned. They have wanted to pay us into Russian bank accounts for a few months now and we have fought them long and hard on this point. Yes, you read that correctly, they want us to open Russian bank accounts. How do we do this? Well, we don’t, apparently they have already opened accounts for us! How the hell they can open an account in my name without my details or signature is beyond me and sounds very dodgy!

Before we left home we didn’t win the fight about the bank accounts but we did win the fight for them to pay us within ten days of us signing the contract. Well, that has now changed too. They are now telling us that they will pay us ten days AFTER we have gone home. I have a very strong feeling that we are never going to get paid. During the meeting I told them on no uncertain terms that what they are trying to do is total bullshit and if they had disclosed this information earlier, I would not have agreed to come here.

None of that sounds very positive, but it's perhaps not all that surprising either. The attempts to convert Sochi from a small resort into an Olympic host in less than a decade have been extremely ambitious: Sochi mayor Anatoly Pakhomov told Sports Illustrated's Alexander Wolff last February that "If not for the Olympics, it would have taken us 50 years to build all these things." The cost of the Sochi Games has reportedly passed $51 billion now, more than four times the initial $12 billion budget and more than even the estimated $44 billion spent on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the most expensive Games prior to this, but there's a limit to what even massive piles of money can accomplish in a short stretch of time. The incredible infrastructure costs may also perhaps have led organizers to skimp on worker accommodations, which might be behind some of the problems Balfour has described. We'll see how the Sochi Olympics play out, but these early reports definitely are troubling.