SOCHI, February 7 (RIA Novosti) – By the entrance to Sochi’s Olympic Village on Thursday, two workmen were using shovels to remove a pile of earth and stones.
As buses emblazoned with Sochi 2014 logos carrying athletes and members of Olympic delegations passed through security barriers nearby, the two men tipped the earth and stones into the depressions around the bottom of recently planted trees secured to the ground with wire.
It was one of few visible signs of last-minute preparations around the Black Sea resort as the first events of the 2014 Winter Olympics got underway with a qualifying event for the snowboarding slopestyle discipline. The official opening ceremony takes place Friday evening.
A new wave of criticism has hit the Games in recent days with reports of stray dogs being exterminated, the failure of the US team to get permission to bring their own yoghurt, which they blamed on Russian bureaucracy, and persistent moaning from journalists – and the odd tourist – over hotel facilities caught out in various stages of completion.
Russian officials and the country’s sporting stars have lined up in recent days to declare that Sochi is fully ready to host the showpiece event.
The Calm Before the Storm?
The atmosphere was calm at the Olympic Park – located about 40 kilometers from the center of Sochi – on Thursday, with most visitors appreciative of the friendly volunteers and the speedy train service from Sochi. But there were complaints about the lines to buy tickets and questions about why one of the most popular events, figure skating, had so many empty seats on Thursday.
All major sporting events have an air of chaos as they get underway, said Jeff Kolkman, an American who had traveled from Norway, where he works as an English teacher, to be at the Winter Games, the 15th Olympics he has attended.
“It’s nothing worse than Beijing and Turin,” he said, referring to the 2008 Summer Olympics in China, and the 2006 Winter Olympics hosted by Italy.
“There’s nothing to complain about. Everyone has been very helpful,” said Kolkman, who said he attends the Olympics mainly in order to trade lapel pins. “I haven’t seen a lot of security. It’s normal Olympic security. Language has been a bit of a problem. Otherwise we’re doing good.”
Firing Up the Games
Back in the city of Sochi itself, the eve of the official opening saw the closing stages of the Olympic torch relay that has covered about 56,000 kilometers, including the North Pole and the International Space Station, during the last four months.
Torchbearers on Thursday included Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Margarita Simonyan, head of RT, the Kremlin’s English-language TV channel.
British former runner Sebastian Coe, who headed the Summer Games in London two years ago, also took part in the relay, as did United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and head of the Sochi Olympic Organizing Committee Dmitry Chernyshenko.
The identity of the final torchbearer, who will light the Olympic cauldron to mark the official beginning of the Games on Friday, remains a closely guarded secret. Rumors circulated Thursday that it would be a retired Russian sporting star.
Pakhomov, the Sochi mayor, said it was a very emotional experience to carry the Olympic flame in the host city after years of preparation.
“It was the same in Vancouver when I accepted the flag. There was the same feeling that tears would flow,” he told RIA Novosti.
“Everything is ready today but, probably like anything new, there are some things that do not work,” Pakhomov added when asked about the problem with hotels. “We ask you not to pay too much attention, we have done a lot of work.”
Despite complaints from journalists housed near Olympic venues about non-drinkable water and unfinished rooms, in Sochi the infrastructure to service the Games appeared to be up and running. Bilingual signs and volunteers are visible all over the city center. Fan zones, where spectators will be able to watch sporting events, are in place. Officials opened a facility for supporters of Russia’s Olympic team in the city Thursday with tennis star Maria Sharapova in attendance.
Safety in Numbers
In the wake of recent double suicide bombings in the Russian city of Volgograd and terrorist threats against the landmark sporting event, security concerns have dominated discussion of the Games in recent days and weeks.
More than 70,000 police and secret service personnel have reportedly been deployed to ensure safety at the Sochi and the surrounding built-up area, which stretches for about 145 kilometers along the Black Sea coast to the resort town of Adler.
Single police officers were posted at regular intervals along most major roads, while police buses were visible delivering and collecting officers, who have been re-kitted in purple Sochi 2014 uniforms, at the entrance of the main Olympic venues in Adler. Unlike most police in other Russian cities, the police in Sochi were not – visibly – carrying weapons.
All those wishing to use the regular train services linking Sochi, the Olympic Park and the mountain cluster have to pass through metal detectors, have their bags X-rayed and be patted down by the purple-clad police officers.
Manhole covers in Sochi near the route along which the Olympic torch was being carried were sealed Thursday in another apparent security measure.
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, who has been in charge of Russia’s Olympic preparations, issued another assurance Thursday that all possible safety measures had been put in place for the Games.
“I want to repeat again that the level of security in Sochi is no worse than that in New York, London, Washington and Boston,” Kozak said.
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