SOCHI, Russia — Despite the anxiety over terrorism threats and criticism for anti-gay laws, poisoned stray dogs and unfinished media hotels, the sun was out Thursday in Sochi, a resort town 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 Friday night, but competition began with Thursday’s 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 short program set to tango music.
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Large groups of athletes checked in to the Olympic Village on the eve of the $51 billion Games. 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 story lines would switch to the athletes now that competition has begun, but questions about security continued Thursday as news broke that the U.S. Homeland Security Department warned airlines flying directly to Russia that terrorists might try to smuggle explosives on board hidden in toothpaste tubes.
Scott Blackmun, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), 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 will react to situations as they arise.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said Sochi is ready for a safe Olympics, adding that the “security level in Sochi is equitable with New York, London, Boston and any other world spot as terror threat has no limits. 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 40,000 law-enforcement officers and troops — seven times the number at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., 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 Thursday. Reporters and others with rooms reserved at the Gorki Grand in the mountain venue arrived 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 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,’’ Kozak said. “We are not neglecting the criticism.’’
A Wall Street Journal report that in the land of twin toilets, authorities had surveillance video from hotels showing that people leave the shower on all day to sabotage the Games brought a denial Thursday, even though the paper quoted Kozak.
His spokesman, Ilya Dzhus, said “no such thing was ever said” and called the report a fantasy, a joke or a mistranslation. Hotels have video surveillance of entrances for security purposes, he said, and some rooms had video surveillance during construction. But never the bathrooms, Dzhus insisted. “You can check yourself.”
The reaction was a sign of how defensive Russian officials have become in the face of sustained criticism by journalists of glitches in hotels, all of which were built from scratch for the Games.
Chicago Tribune reporter Stacy St. Clair memorably described her experiences at her temporary hotel, telling of fire alarms sounding every 45 minutes, no water and nonflushing toilets. After she notified the front desk about the water, the reception desk man promised a fix, adding: “But when it comes back on, please do not use on your face because it contains something very dangerous.”
When the water eventually came back on, the water that arrived was dark yellow, or as she said: “the color of a performance enhancing drug test specimen.”
St. Clair’s subsequent tweeted photo and quip — “On the bright side, I now know what dangerous face water looks like” — went viral and made her popular among fellow journalists in Sochi.
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 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 flag bearer Todd Lodwick, 37, 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.
Although a number of top world leaders are skipping the Olympic Games, Russian organizers said a record number of world dignitaries would attend. Those giving the event a miss include President Obama, French President François Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German President Joachim Gauck.
The Olympics come amid Western criticism of Russia’s record on human rights and its law banning gay “propaganda” among minors.
Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the Sochi organizing committee, said 65 heads of state and government and international organizations are expected to attend Russia’s first Winter Olympics. “This is a record for Winter Games, three times the number in Vancouver,” he said in his final update to the IOC general assembly.
The IOC said Wednesday it was aware of 44 world leaders coming to the Olympics. Chernyshenko’s figures could be higher because of the inclusion of international organizations.
Sochi organizers declined to provide the names of the leaders or the countries they represent. The Olympics will be the first in 14 years without a current or former U.S. president, vice president or first lady.
Material from The Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune is included in this report.