SOCHI, Russia — Despite all the anxiety over terrorism threats and criticism for anti-gay laws, poisoned stray dogs, and unfinished media hotels, the sun shined brightly Thursday on this temperate resort town, known as the “Russian Riviera,’’ sandwiched between the snowy peaks of the Caucasus Mountains and the pebble beaches kissing the Black Sea coastline.
The Olympic flame traveled to outer space and the North Pole, and now, ready or not, the 2014 Sochi Olympics are here.
The Games will not officially begin until the Opening Ceremony on Friday night, but competition got underway 32 hours earlier, with Thursday qualification rounds in snowboard slopestyle, ladies’ moguls and the opening night of team figure skating.
Hometown favorite Evgeny Plushenko, the three-time Olympic medalist and 2006 champion, brought down the house at the Iceberg Skating Palace with his dramatic short program set to tango music. Russia’s rich ballet culture was evident in Plushenko’s every move, and is expected to be highlighted again during the Opening Ceremony with an appearance by St. Petersburg prima ballerina Ulyana Lopatkina.
Large groups of athletes checked in to the Olympic Village on the eve of these $51 billion Games, while the Jamaican bobsled team awaited its lost luggage and equipment after having to make an unplanned stop in Philadelphia due to bad weather. Friendly volunteers in colorful jackets resembling the traditional matryoshka nesting dolls are all over the city, directing visitors.
Russian organizers and leaders of the U.S. Olympic Committee were hoping the storylines would switch to the athletes now that competition has begun, but questions about security continued Thursday morning as news broke that the U.S. Homeland Security Department warned airlines flying directly to Russia that terrorists may try to smuggle explosives on board hidden in toothpaste tubes.
Scott Blackmun, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, asked about the toothpaste threat, said: “I don’t want talk about specific responses to specific threats because I think it actually impairs our security plan to do that. But I will say that we were made aware of it, and I can’t really say anything beyond that.”
He said the USOC is in close contact with the State Department and they will react to situations as they arise.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said Sochi is ready for a safe Olympics, and that the “security level in Sochi is equitable with New York, London, Boston and any other world spot as terror threat has no limits,” he said. “Based on information we received from our intelligence services, there’s no reason to believe Sochi is under more threat than any city on the planet.”
Islamic insurgents nearby have threatened to disrupt the Games, so the Sochi area has been turned into a fortress with tens of thousands of 40,000 law enforcement officers and troops – seven times the number at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, a city much larger than Sochi. Two U.S. Navy warships – the USS Mount Whitney and the USS Taylor – are stationed in the Black Sea in case of emergency.
Kozak also responded to ridicule and criticism regarding the media accommodations, which remained under construction on Thursday. Los Angeles Times reporters, and others with rooms reserved at the Gorki Grand’ in the mountain venue, arrived earlier this week and were told their hotel was not finished. They were instructed to ride a ski lift gondola in the pitch dark with their luggage up to a temporary hotel, the Panorama. When they got to the top, they found a ghost town before eventually finding the hotel, which had opened hours earlier.
On Wednesday night, dozens of travel-weary reporters were camped out for as long as seven hours in the lobby at the Ekaterininskiy Kvartal media dorm in the city, awaiting rooms that were still being finished and furnished. When they say they are “making the bed’’ here, they may, in fact, be MAKING the bed. Many of the rooms are missing light bulbs, closet rods, shower curtains and hot water.
“We are trying to react quickly and deal with the admonitions coming,’’ he said. “We are not neglecting the criticism.’’
The next challenge for the Russian organizing committee is to try and live up to spectacular Opening Ceremonies of recent years. The London 2012 extravaganza included well-known British rock stars, James Bond, and the Queen of England. Beijing’s 2008 grandiose show featured 14,000 performers and a precision likely never to be seen again. Vancouver four years ago had snowboarder Johnny Lyall jumping through Olympics rings on fire.
Sochi’s ceremony plans are a well-guarded secret. The only thing that has leaked out is that the event will showcase the diversity, size and history of Russia. Viola player Yuri Bashmet and Russian pianist Denis Matsuev are expected to perform.
The U.S. delegation will be led into the Parade of Nations by 37-year-old flag bearer Todd Lodwick, a six-time Olympian in Nordic Combined who won a silver medal in 2010. The American athletes will be wearing patchwork cardigans by Ralph Lauren, white fleece pants and red leather boots.
“Going into my sixth Olympic Games, it feels like I have already won a medal, and to cap off my career by representing the United States of America and Team USA is truly a privilege,” Lodwick said.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King was scheduled to be among three openly gay athletes to attend the Opening Ceremony at the invitation of President Barack Obama, but she announced she will not travel to Sochi because of the failing health of her 91-year-old mother. Brian Boitano, the 1988 Figure Skating gold medalist, and former Olympic hockey player Caitlin Cahow are still scheduled to be in the delegation, a symbol of diversity by the Obama administration in response to Russia’s anti-gay propaganda laws.
For the first time since 1988, there will not be a current or former U.S. president, vice president, or family member at the Opening Ceremony.