Confident Putin pledges 'hospitable' Games
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) greets International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach at an event welcoming IOC members ahead of the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics at the Rus Hotel on February 4, 2014, in Sochi, Russia - by David Goldman
Putin arrived in the Sochi region ahead of Friday's opening ceremony in typically confident mood, taking top IOC members to meet leopards being bred in the Sochi region as part of a re-introduction programme.
But analysts have said that Putin has staked his personal reputation on the success of the Games, which have been inextricably linked with his name ever since he spearheaded the successful Russian bid in 2007.
The Games have in particular been shadowed by concerns over the implementation in Sochi of a Russian law against "gay propaganda" to minors, as well as security concerns due to the proximity of the region to the violence-plagued Northern Caucasus.
But Putin assured International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach that all guests would feel comfortable at Russia's Olympics.
"I want to assure you that we will do everything so that Sochi is a hospitable home for all the participants, for all the guests," Putin told Bach as he met members of the IOC in Sochi.
"The main task is to make the Sochi Games a celebration for all sport lovers in the world," Putin added.
"We will do everything to hold the Olympic Games at the very highest level," he said.
'The ecological situation has improved'
Putin earlier took Jean Claude Killy, the French skiing legend who has been the International Olympic Committee's pointman for Sochi, and IOC Executive Director Gilbert Felli in his own jeep to a nature reserve above the city.
Russia is working to reintroduce the Persian leopard to the nearby mountains as part of measures aimed at showing that the Olympic Games will benefit and not hurt the environment.
"The ecological situation has improved many times over," said Putin. "According to some estimates, it has improved by a factor of four."
"There are questions which always crop up during such huge construction but in general the situation has not worsened but improved."
However environmentalists scoff at such claims, saying that the Games have irreversibly damaged once virgin environments by the sea and in the mountains.
A Russian court on Monday handed a 15 day jail term leading environmental critic of the Sochi Olympic Games, ostensibly for "swearing" in a public place.
The jailing of Yevgeny Vitishko, a geologist and activist with the group Environmental Watch on the Northern Caucasus (EWNC), was aimed at sidelining him ahead of the opening ceremony, the group said.
'Why at our Olympics?'
As well as Putin, the hugely powerful Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Kirill descended on the Olympic mountain zone to give his support to the Games.
"It simply makes you so proud to see what our constructors have done in such a short time," said the influential cleric, wearing a tracksuit and a black woolly hat adorned with a cross instead of his usual robes.
Russia has been keeping the contents of Friday's opening ceremony tightly under wraps and Putin insisted that he was in no way involved in the choice of which famous athlete would light the Olympic flame.
Meanwhile Russian speed skating legend Svetlana Zhurova, a lawmaker for the ruling United Russia Party, said she was tired of the controversy over Russia's anti-gay law and insisted there would be no problems for any competitor.
"It is strange to me why this (the controversy) needs to happen at our Olympics here in Russia and not in other countries. What is the difference? It is the Olympics," she told reporters.
Two Austrian athletes taking part in the Winter Olympics have been threatened with kidnap in an anonymous letter, the country's interior ministry said Tuesday, with local media citing ski star Marlies Schild and Janine Flock as the targets.
Meanwhile, concerns persisted over the safety of the slopestyle course which has already left two snowboard stars injured as US X Games icon Shaun White labelled the run "intimidating".