There’s a certain irony in the fact that a former communist country is now hosting the most expensive Winter Olympic event in history. It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
The Dream and the Nightmare
Prior to the announcement of the Russian application for the Olympics, many citizens believed that the mountainous regions of Sochi, in the gorges and on the slopes of Krasnaya Polyana would be the logical venue. The people of Russia envisioned increased, world-wide respect for their athletes, along with the development of a world-class ski resort.
Their enthusiasm was short-lived. Imagine their surprise when they discovered that the main events, including the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games, would take place in the warmest region of Russia; the Imeret Lowlands, a sub-tropical swamp located on the shore of the Black Sea in the basin of the Mzymta River.
That was the first surprise. It gets worse. Putin, the country’s controversial homophobic president, assured the Olympic Committee that the Olympic facilities would be completed on schedule and that the country would spend $12 billion on preparation. The record-breaking budget for the 2014 Olympic Games now stands at $50 billion and rising.
Now Let’s Talk About the Working Conditions
The transformation of Sochi from a small resort town to international Olympic host evokes images of the building of the slave labor performed at the Egyptian pyramids. The construction projects involves the efforts of at least 70,000 workers, including tens of thousands of migrant workers from outside of Russia.
Human Rights Watch reports that some of these workers have faced exploitation and abuse. Many were denied wages for weeks or months. Others toiled through 12-hour shifts with only one day off per month, had their passports confiscated, were denied employment contracts, and faced unsanitary and overcrowded employer-provided accommodations, with up to 200 migrant workers sharing a one single-family home. Those who dared to protest their abuse faced expulsion from Russia.
And Here’s Johnnie
Johnnie Balfour is not your typical migrant worker. An impressive profile on IMDB indicates that he’s been around the block a few times, and that’s just his film profile. The Australian snowboarder has built snowboard cross courses for the FIS World Cup. Until recently, he was building courses for 2014 Sochi Olympics. On January 25, 2014, he reported on his blog that he was returning home. Prior to his decision, he reported a blow-by blow of the working conditions at Sochi.
Sochi airport just a small domestic terminal and doesn’t look finished. It was pretty simple to get through the place and grab my bags. I spotted a Sochi 2014 desk surrounded by volunteers and attempted to ask what the hell I do now. I got blank stares. One girl finally stepped up with her hand out and said “Accreditaion”. She checked my accreditation and said, “No this is wrong, you must get it fixed”. I finally worked out that she was telling me to go to the main office at the resort of Rosa Kutor and work it out. She then turned her back and walked off leaving me standing there completely lost. Well, I guess I should try this bus schedule.
Just before I walked out of the main doors and into the rain, I was grabbed by yet another volunteer. “Name! you tell me name now!” I complied and was told to wait. A couple of minutes later I was met by Oleg, the sport manager for snowboard and skicross. I was then piled into a car and we were off and a ridiculous speed in the pouring rain and fog and on the wrong side of the road for most of the time. There were police everywhere who didn’t even give us a sideways glance as we ripped past them at light speed on the wrong side of the road.
We pull into a driveway of a block of buildings that look like a council housing estate in England. It looks like it was built 50 years ago, not 2. The road is half built and there is mud and water pouring down the street off the mountain. This place is a dump and looks like it could fall down at any moment. I am pulled from the car and shoved in front of a pimply kid seated behind a plastic table. He is surrounded by boxes of building supplies and broken tiles, the place smells of concrete dust. Pimple kid hands me key and points at the next building, “Top floor, room 10”. I turn to leave, “No, you come”. He drags me to another room full of folded laundry, he hands me a two sheets, a pillow case and a roll of toilet paper. As I am signing for my issued bedding and toilet paper, I feel like I am back in the army, this is exactly like basic training. I didn’t sign up to go through that again!
With a single metal bed and a toilet filled with filthy water, his harassment was not far from the truth. Then, there’s the payment issue.
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.
The authorities told him to “shut up” and stop writing about this stuff in his blog. So much for Glastnost!