Sochi: Athletes, fans set for Russia's Winter Olympics spectacle

CNN
Friday, February 7, 2014 - 11:52am

After all the consternation over security, the controversy over gay rights and the ridicule over poor preparations, the Sochi Games are here.

The last of the athletes are arriving Thursday, including the bulk of Team USA. Qualification events have begun in the men's and ladies' slopestyle, while the ladies' moguls and team figure skating contests start later.

And Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the Games, is promising Sochi will be "the safest place on Earth during the Olympics."

Here are the latest developments, a day before the Games' official opening:

SECURITY

There's no doubt it's the issue at the forefront of people's minds.

Russia has drafted some 37,000 police and security officers to handle security in Sochi. But that's not been enough to assuage everyone's fears.

Toothpaste terror: The United States on Wednesday warned airlines with direct flights serving Russia to be aware of the possibility that explosive materials could be concealed in toothpaste or cosmetic tubes.

U.S. Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee's subcommittee on terrorism and Intelligence, told CNN that Americans, the airlines and those at the Olympics should take the threat "very seriously."

King, a New York Republican, said he believes the athletes and American spectators are "reasonably safe" but noted that he would not go himself.

Private protection: The U.S. ski and snowboarding team has hired a private security firm, Global Rescue, to provide protection. It's not clear how much the firm could do in the event of a major incident, when Russian forces will be in charge, but it has been gathering intelligence on the ground and will provide an extra layer of protection as athletes travel around.

Ships for safety: Meanwhile, two U.S. Navy ships have steamed into the Black Sea, where they will be ready to help if any mass evacuation of U.S. citizens is needed. U.S. security officials have also been working with their Russian counterparts on how to keep the Games safe against the backdrop of a regional separatist movement that has used terrorism in the past and has threatened to use it during Sochi's Olympic Games.

Targets of threats: Americans are not the only ones who are jittery. Austria said this week that two of its female athletes had been the target of specific threats. Austrian media reported an anonymous letter was sent warning Alpine skier Bernadette Schild and skeleton racer Janine Flock they could be kidnapped.

We've heard it before: It's not the first time security issues have dominated the build-up to the Olympics -- Britain parked missile batteries on apartment block roofs and a warship on the River Thames before the 2012 Games. The Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002 were held amid heightened security only months after the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States -- and the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta were subject to a terror attack.

PREPARATIONS

When Russia bid to host its first Winter Olympics in 2007, a document quoted an expected cost of around $12 billion. That figure has ballooned to around $50 billion. That's more than four times over budget and surpasses Beijing's 2008 Summer Games -- making it the most expensive Olympics ever, summer or winter.

Russia had less than seven years to transform what was a fairly low-key seaside resort town into a Winter Olympics venue -- a project that required staggering feats of engineering in building a new freeway and rail link up a mountain, and a ski resort on the top. And yet questions over Sochi's readiness have dogged the final run-up to the Games.

Not quite there: While the sports facilities were completed in good time, journalists and others arrived in Sochi this week to find that some of the 40,000 new hotel rooms were far from ready and that construction workers were still hard at work on parts of the Olympic Park.

Thanks to pictures of chaotic scenes posted on Twitter, Russia's embarrassment has not been spared.

But CNN's Ben Wyatt in Sochi reports that the picture is not all bad. His hotel has been "superb" and staff and Games volunteers are clearly making an effort to be helpful and speak English, he said.

While some media hotels and landscaping projects have not been completed on time, the sporting venues are all looking in very good condition, he said.

It'll be A-OK: The Games are President Vladimir Putin's pet project -- so the pressure is on for the Russian organizers to deliver and foster the country's reputation as a wealthy, modern state.

Chernyshenko told CNN he was confident all was in hand ahead of Friday's opening ceremony.

"We are pretty sure that the minor issues are fixed," he said. "And everybody will concentrate on sport and excellence."

PROTESTS

Every Olympics has protests. But thanks to social media, Russia is facing a global backlash.

What got many people riled was Russian lawmakers' passage last summer of legislation known as the anti-gay propaganda bill. The law makes it illegal to tell children about gay equality.

Open letter: More than 200 writers from around the world signed an open letter published Thursday in the UK newspaper The Guardian, calling for a repeal of laws that have placed a "chokehold" on the right to free expression in Russia.

"As writers and artists, we cannot stand quietly by as we watch our fellow writers and journalists pressed into silence or risking prosecution and often drastic punishment for the mere act of communicating their thoughts," the letter said. Authors Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Franzen and Nobel laureates Gunter Grass and Orhan Pamuk are among the signatories.

Coordinated protests: To keep the issue in the public eye, gay rights group All Out coordinated protests in cities around the world Wednesday -- New York, London, Rio de Janeiro and Paris among them. It's also set up the Principle 6 campaign, named for the article in the Olympic Charter that promises no discrimination.

Designated site: There is a designated protest site in Sochi. But there's been criticism of organizers' decision to tuck it away in a hard-to-reach village seven miles from the main Olympic Park.

More protests may be yet to come -- perhaps even by athletes despite an Olympic Charter rule that states: "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

Express yourself: Chernyshenko says visitors to Sochi have nothing to fear. "You have to understand that any discrimination by gender, by sexual orientation, or religious is prohibited in my country by constitution and also by Olympic Charter.

"Athletes are free to express themselves, and for those who want to demonstrate something we organized what we call Sochi 'speakers' corner.' "

EVENTS

Athletes are strapping on their skis, snowboards and ice skates Thursday as the sporting spectacle gets under way.

All together now: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged warring leaders to take a leaf from the competitors' book. "The athletes send a unified message that people and nations can put aside their differences. If they can do that in Sochi's sporting arenas, leaders of fighters should do the same in the world's combat areas," he said Thursday.

Making the cut: As well as qualification rounds for the ladies' moguls, figure skaters are taking to the ice for the team men short program and the team pairs short program.

The qualification rounds in the men's and ladies' slopestyle competition -- making its debut at the Sochi Games -- saw athletes whiz down a daunting course littered with bumps, rails and jumps.

Thanks, I'll pass: This event is the one ditched by champion U.S. snowboarder and skateboarder Shaun White.

The king of cool, who's been nursing a wrist injury, withdrew Wednesday, a day after admitting the slopestyle course presented an "intimidating" challenge. He's going to focus instead on winning his third gold medal in the halfpipe, another snowboarding event.

Record numbers, record tally?: Team USA, with 230 members, will be the largest athlete delegation for any nation in Winter Olympics history. Made up of 125 men and 105 women, the team has high hopes of bringing back a record tally of medals.
 

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