Nestled on the Black Sea in the shadow of the Krasnaya Polyana Mountains, the small resort town of Sochi, Russia, is about to become the center of the sports and political worlds. As many as 1 billion people are expected to tune in to tonight’s opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics, which runs through Feb. 23.
The ceremony, which begins at 11 a.m. EST, is expected to be a defining post-Soviet statement from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who spent a record $51 billion on the city ahead of the games. Americans will have to wait, though, for NBC’s taped broadcast at 7:30 EST to see what secretive Russian organizers have up their sleeves for the 40,000 spectators at the brand-new Fisht Olympic Stadium.
We do know, though, that officials tasked American Broadway choreographer Daniel Ezralow with a segment on 20th-century Russia. He gave People magazine few clues on how he plans to handle a century featuring the rise and fall of a cruel communist regime, two world wars, and the space race with the United States. Rumors are, though, that viola player Yuri Bashmet and pianist Denis Matsuev will perform, and perhaps rightly so, because standing above all Russia’s not-so-bright moments is a rich history in classical music and art.
The ceremony, in theory, should finally give Putin some control over Sochi’s Olympic narrative, which hasn’t focused much at all on the games themselves. In what is a good sign for Russian organizers, 65 world leaders will be in Sochi—a Winter Olympic record and three times the number who attended the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia. But U.S. President Barack Obama won’t be one of them, partly because of a Western outcry over Russia’s laws against homosexual “propaganda,” or virtually any favorable mention of the lifestyle around children.
Also overshadowing the games is the darker side of Sochi, away from the Olympic Park’s luxury malls, sleek stadiums, and high-speed train links. The picture many reporters are painting resembles a teenager’s bedroom: immaculate from the door, but with piles of junk shoved in the corners outside well-traveled areas. Only, in this case, it’s torn up streets, unfinished hotels, power shortages, and street-side Olympic waste dumps.
And let’s just say the state of some media lodging didn’t help Russia’s cause. CNN reporters tweeted SOSs as they discovered only one of their 11 rooms had been made ready. The Chicago Tribune’s Stacy St. Clair briefly had no water at her hotel, and what did come out was urine-colored. The front desk warned, “Do not use on your face because it contains something very dangerous.” (Needless to say, the jokes went viral as broadcaster Bob Costas anchored NBC’s coverage Thursday with an apparent eye infection.)
No one is laughing, though, at the biggest worry of the games: terrorism. Two suicide bombings in late December in the southern city of Volgograd killed 34 people. Islamic militants in Russia’s North Caucasus—about as close to Sochi as Kansas City is to Nashville—asserted responsibility for those bombings and have threatened to strike Sochi. Russia has deployed 50,000 police, army, and security officers, but some countries are taking extra precautions.
The U.S. Homeland Security Department banned all liquids Thursday from carry-on luggage for nonstop flights to Russia over fears that terrorists might try to smuggle explosives hidden in toothpaste tubes. U.S. officials have declared confidence in the security, but some Olympians refused to let family accompany them, including Canadian goaltender Mike Smith of the National Hockey League’s Phoenix Coyotes. “I just think it’s not worth it,” Smith told Fox Sports Arizona of his two young children and pregnant wife. “It’s not worth it for myself thinking about is she OK when I’m not with her?”
Despite all the kinks and all the controversy leading up to the games, the athletes take center stage after tonight’s ceremony. There are first-ever Winter Olympians for some countries and others overcoming long obstacles, plus a U.S. contingent of Christ-followers. Stay tuned to WORLD during the next two weeks for some of those slices of Olympic life.