Vladimir Putin has fired a top Russian Olympic official after publicly ridiculing him on a visit to facilities being built for a winter Olympics dogged by reports of corruption and construction delays.
The humiliation of Akhmed Bilalov, 42, stamped the president’s authority over the 2014 Sochi Games and underlined the importance he attaches to the global event he hopes will show how far Russia has come since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
In a vintage performance, reminiscent of an all-powerful tsar sweeping through town in imperial times, Putin became angry when he heard of the rising costs and construction delays at the ski-jump complex Bilalov was involved in.
Unsmiling and sarcastic, Putin unceremoniously scolded Bilalov in front of television cameras at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, then sacked him as vice-president of Russia’s Olympic committee.
“How is it possible that the vice-president of the Olympic committee is delaying development?” Putin said after touring Sochi, which has become a huge construction site with the concrete carcasses of unfinished buildings.
With Bilalov squirming in the background, he added: “Well done. You are really working well.”
Bilalov’s dismissal overshadowed a day of festivities as Russia unveiled huge diamond-shaped clocks in Moscow, Sochi and six other cities counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds to the opening of the Games in one year.
The deputy prime minister, Dmitry Kozak, made clear Bilalov was also likely to lose his job on the board of the Resorts of the North Caucasus, a state firm created to develop luxury resorts.
“People who do not fulfil their obligations on such a scale cannot lead the Olympic movement in our country,” Kozak told reporters in Sochi, a popular tourist destination for Russians in summer and winter.In Sochi, the din of the heavy trucks and diggers did not stop as the day’s countdown festivities began. Large areas are fenced off in the city centre and many of the roads are closed.
The ski resort of Krasnaya Polyana, which looks down on Sochi, is still a muddle of fences, cranes, trucks and unfinished buildings. There is little snow but plenty of mud.
Putin had warned officials on Wednesday not to let corruption push up the costs of the Games, already expected to reach $50bn, or five times more than the initial price tag. This would make them the costliest Games so far.
The Olympics are a priority for Putin in his third term as president, a chance to show Russia is a modern democracy capable of organising global events, 13 years after he rose to power.
“The main thing is that no one steals anything, so there are no unexplained increases in costs,” he said on Wednesday as he went rapidly from one venue to another.
Russia has been trying to shed its reputation for corruption, which has long put off foreign investors. But fears of foul play prompted then-president, Dmitry Medvedev, to order an investigation in 2010 into a senior Kremlin official accused of extorting bribes over Games construction work.