SOCHI, Russia Despite the anxiety over terrorism threats and criticism for anti-gay laws, poisoned stray dogs and unfinished 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.
The Olympic flame traveled to outer space and the North Pole, and now, ready or not many people fear its the not the 2014 Sochi Olympics are here.
The Games officially begin with the Opening Ceremony tonight, but competition got underway 32 hours earlier, with Thursday qualification rounds in snowboard slopestyle, ladies moguls and the opening night of team figure skating.
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 after having to make an unplanned stop in Philadelphia.
Friendly volunteers in colorful jackets resembling the traditional matryoshka nesting dolls are all over the city, directing visitors and trying to spread positive vibes they say theyre hopeful of putting on a fantastic, incident-free event.
Russian organizers and leaders of the U.S. Olympic Committee are hoping the stories switch to the athletes now that competition has begun, but questions about security continued Thursday morning as news broke that the Department of Homeland Security warned airlines flying directly to Russia that terrorists might try to smuggle explosives on board in toothpaste tubes.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said that 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, theres no reason to believe Sochi is under more threat than any city on the planet.
The next challenge for the Russian organizing committee is to try to live up to spectacular ceremonies of recent years.
The London 2012 extravaganza included well-known British rock stars and actors, James Bond and the Queen of England. Beijings 2008 show featured 14,000 performers and a precision likely never to be seen again. The last Winter Games, in Vancouver, had snowboarder Johnny Lyall jumping through Olympic rings that were on fire.
Sochis 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.
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 that 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 by the Obama administration in response to Russias 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 ceremony.