MOSCOW -- Clouds of dust. Piles of rubble. Muddy roads and construction sites.
Oleg Rubezhansky looks around Sochi and says: "We live like in a besieged town during the war."
His Russian city is not under attack, it is scrambling to finish preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics with only 100 days remaining until the opening ceremony.
And Rubezhansky, who owns a local newspaper and television company, is not alone in his concern.
Work delays, massive cost overruns and allegations of corruption have marked the run-up to these Games. Some weather forecasters are predicting a warm winter with not enough snow to cover ski runs and snowboard halfpipes.
Just as worrisome, Russia's new anti-gay legislation has triggered a sustained international outcry among political leaders and athletes.
"I think it's absolutely embarrassing there are countries and people who are that intolerant and that ignorant," American ski racer Bode Miller recently said.
With the clock ticking -- and the world watching -- it might seem as if Sochi organizers face long odds in pulling together the Games by February.
So why are Olympic historians and experts predicting a success?
From the start, Sochi represented an unlikely spot for a wintertime competition. Nestled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, it had always been known as a summer resort.
"Why would you choose one of the only subtropical areas in Russia?" asked Janice Forsyth, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies in Ontario, Canada.
The answer is simple. In a written response to questions from the Los Angeles Times, Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the organizing committee, said: "It is important to keep in mind that we started our large-scale project from scratch, with the Games being the catalyst to turn Sochi from a regional, summer resort into the world-class, year-round business and tourist center it is becoming today."
Last February -- a year before the Games -- the committee invited athletes to a series of competitions at its new mountain venues. Unseasonable temperatures forced several cancellations.
"The conditions at the test events were not superb," freestyle skier Maddie Bowman said. "It was really rainy and slushy."
Bowman also recalls seeing widespread construction.
With about 75,000 workers laboring around the clock across the city and its Olympic areas, organizers say they have finished all 10 of the competition venues. Last month, inspectors from the International Olympic Committee gave their stamp of approval.
"We are in great shape and ready for the Games," Chernyshenko said.
Jean-Claude Killy, chairman of the IOC's coordination commission, concurred: "To see how far the local organizers have come over the last six years is quite simply remarkable. The spirit of the Games is awakening here."
But miles of tunnels and railway tracks remain unopened, along with various non-competition facilities. Parts of the city are still rebuilding from a recent earthquake.
In a telephone interview, Rubezhansky spoke of growing anger among Sochi residents. Discontent has spread countrywide as Sochi's budget has soared past $50 billion, an Olympic record and more than four times the original estimate.
Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov alleges that corruption among government and business leaders has accounted for $25 billion to $30 billion of that total. He calls the Sochi Games "the scam of the century beginning from the choice of venue and finishing with the crooked way it was implemented."
Nemtsov has also raised the specter of a terrorist attack.
In July, Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov released a video encouraging Islamist militants in the northern Caucasus to target the Olympics. A suicide bus bombing in southern Russia last week heightened security concerns.
"I don't expect much from these Games but shame and humiliation," Nemtsov said.
People who follow the Olympic movement closely do not seem as alarmed by Sochi's struggles.
David Wallechinsky, who co-wrote "The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics," has chronicled decades of turmoil and controversy surrounding the world's grandest sporting event.
"There are always ups and downs beforehand," he said. "This is standard."
Preparations almost never go smoothly because the Olympics are massive, complex and enormously expensive. The winter version can be especially tricky for several reasons.
The events often require disparate sites: A cluster of mountain venues for skiing, snowboarding and sledding, plus a metropolitan complex of arenas for skating, hockey and curling. The vagaries of weather can further complicate matters.
As the late historian John Lucas once said, "Every single Winter Olympics has been fraught with problems."
In terms of weather, experts believe too little snow is preferable to too much.
At the 1998 Nagano Olympics, whiteout conditions caused repeated delays in several marquee events. Conversely, when warm weather turned mountainsides into mush in Vancouver four years ago, organizers brought fresh snow from a colder locale.
Sochi has a similar plan, with hundreds of snow-making cannons and large reservoirs storing hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of snowfall from last winter.
"We have had enough time to learn the lessons of previous organizers," Chernyshenko said.
As for concerns about infrastructure and security, Wallechinsky sees political will working in Sochi's favor.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made these Games a priority. Observers believe he will spend whatever is necessary to help Sochi succeed and keep it safe from terrorism.
"Of course there are some problems to be tackled," the president said in televised remarks from the city this week. "Some things need to be brought to conclusion, but there is confidence that everything will be done properly and in time."
It is doubtful Putin will want the anti-gay law to become an issue at his big show, despite the fact that at least one athlete is planning to wear a rainbow pin and others have vowed to speak out at news conferences.
The legislation bans "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships to minors." Critics say it effectively prohibits gay rights rallies and could be used against anyone who voices support for gays.
Former Soviet pole vaulter and current IOC member Sergei Bubka insisted that "there will be no discrimination for athletes, officials or spectators. We are very confident."
Putin himself said on Monday: "We will do our utmost and our athletes and fans will do their best, too, to make both participants and guests feel comfortable at the Sochi Olympics regardless of their ... race or sexual orientation."
It is still possible that Sochi will stumble. Even with the best of intentions, the Games can fall prey to calamity, as evidenced by the massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972 and Atlanta's Olympic Park bombing in 1996.
But more often, experts say, organizers rally at the last moment and the event proceeds without major problems.
Once the competition begins, athletes and their exploits usually overshadow off-the-field dramas, with the media focused on record times and gold medals.
"People get caught up in the euphoria," Forsyth said. "We get a lot of celebration, and we tend to forget."
For 17 days, fans watch transfixed. When it's over, everyone can resume complaining.
(Loiko reported from Moscow and Wharton from Los Angeles.)
(c)2013 Los Angeles Times
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services