Hardly a month goes by in Russia without a fresh scandal hitting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The latest blow came from Akhmed Bilalov, a disgraced former deputy head of Russia’s Olympic Committee, fired in February after being publicly upbraided
by President Vladimir Putin for huge cost overruns and a two-year delay in the construction of the Sochi ski jump.
On April 27, Bilalov claimed that he was suffering from mercury poisoning after being exposed to the toxic substance at his Moscow office.
"They have found elevated levels of mercury in my body," he told the Interfax news agency. "I didn't want to announce this before, but now that the press has found out I'm forced to confirm it."
Bilalov, 42, said he "began to feel bad in the middle of autumn last year" while still working at his Moscow office.
Akhmed Bilalov, the former deputy head of Russia's Olympic Committee
He said he had "no supposition yet" as to where the mercury came from and that he "would not want to accuse anyone." He added that he would take the matter to the police as soon as he returns to Moscow.
Bilalov's revelation ended weeks of speculation about the mysterious ailment that allegedly forced him to abruptly leave Russia and seek treatment in Germany, where he has spent much of his time since being sidelined from the Olympic preparations.
Prosecutors last month opened a criminal case against the former official for allegedly embezzling $2.6 million from North Caucasus Resorts, the state-owned company that was building the ski jump and its adjacent facilities.
Bilalov also stands accused of misspending $97,000 during his tenure as head of the company, including funding a trip to London during the 2012 Olympics.
Putin also stripped him of that post as head of North Caucasus Resorts.
Rising Costs, Environmental Damage
While Bilalov’s poisoning claims have met with a degree of disbelief, the online news site Gazeta.ru says it has seen a copy of his medical report indicating that four times the normal amount of mercury had been found in his blood.
Aleksei Nevsky, Bilalov’s predecessor at the North Caucasus Resorts, stepped down earlier this year "for health reasons."
Nevsky is also under investigation for mismanagement and embezzlement at the company.
Bilalov’s case has highlighted reports of vast corruption in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics.
According to estimates by Russia’s Audit Chamber, more than $500 million has already been misspent by state-run companies responsible for most Olympic construction.
With less than a year to go, the total budget for the Sochi Olympics has swollen to five times original estimates. At a cost exceeding $50 billion, the Sochi games are on course to become the most expensive Olympics ever staged.
A number of private investors and wealthy oligarchs recruited by Putin to help fund the event, including Oleg Deripaska, are increasingly frustrated by rising costs and are demanding that the Russian government contribute more.
Reports of ruthless environmental damage in the region have further marred the event.
The World Wildlife Fund’s Russian branch has withdrawn its support for the games due to what it says is "great damage to the surrounding environment."
In a strongly worded statement, the group warned that Olympic construction is "out of control" and accused Russian authorities of ignoring the recommendations of ecologists.
Greenpeace, too, has sounded the alarm over Olympic construction near pristine nature reserves protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Allegations of worker mistreatment have also surfaced.
Human Rights Watch says migrant workers employed at the Olympic building sites in Sochi are routinely cheated out of wages and denied adequate rest, food, and housing.
The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics are scheduled to kick off on February 7 and run through February 23.