First teams arrive in Sochi as Russia races to finish
Philippine athlete Michael Christian Martinez arrives for the welcoming ceremony for the team in the Athletes Village at the Olympic Park ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi on February 2, 2014 - by Alexander Demianchuk
The Games, the biggest event Russia has hosted since the fall of the Soviet Union, are to get underway on February 7 at a ceremony starting at 2014 local time (1614 GMT) that is expected to project Russia’s status as a world and sporting power.
Athletes from five teams, including New Zealand and Japan, were given official welcoming ceremonies as they arrived at the Olympic Village ahead of the main influx of athletes next week.
Media arriving early for the Games have found organisers racing against the clock to finish accommodation on time, with rooms still being furnished even after journalists had checked in.
"There are still some issues to be solved as it is always just before the games," International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach acknowledged as he attended a session of the IOC executive board in Sochi.
"But always in this respect we are in contact with the organising committee and we hope that the situation will be solved in the next couple of days," he added.
After winning the right to host the Games in a bid spearheaded by President Vladimir Putin, Russia had to build almost all its infrastructure from scratch in an almost virgin area, a drive that has caused huge concern among environmental activists.
"The first time I visited the Olympic Park was in August 2009 and it was an empty site. I’m not afraid that things are not yet completed -- they are tiny details and will be finished soon,” said Oleg Kharchenko, the chief architect from state contractor Olympstroi.
Teams from New Zealand, Mongolia, Japan, Belgium and the Philippines are the first being ceremonially welcomed on Sunday in the two Olympic villages by the sea and by the mountains. The Russian team is due to arrive on February 5.
High security for controversial Games
The world will be scrutinising Russia to see whether it is capable of hosting a world class Games amid concerns about issues ranging from the risk of attacks by Caucasus militants and Russia’s now notorious law against gay propaganda.
Russia is proudly presenting what it sees as a new concept for the Games, with stadium events like figure skating and ice hockey held in the Olympic Park on the temperate coastline and the alpine and nordic events in the snowy mountains above.
Despite being billed as the Sochi Games, the event is centred over 30 kilometres to the south of the city close to the resort of Adler, with self contained "mountain" and "coastal" clusters.
A security blanket has descended on the area after the deadly suicide bombings in Volgograd in December that killed 34 people and exposed the risk of militant attacks on the Games.
Cars need a special permit to enter the Sochi area and airport-style security is in force for commuters using local trains, with hundreds of volunteers body-searching passengers at each station.
Australian Olympic team chef de mission Ian Chesterman said team members are banned from travelling into Sochi city as a security precaution.
Closely watched will be the enforcement of the "gay propaganda" law passed by the Russian parliament last year which bans the promotion of homosexuality to minors. The law, which activists say is patently homophobic, prompted calls in some quarters for a boycott of the Games although these were never followed up at a political level.
The so-called “mayor” of the coastal Olympic village is the Russian pole vault champion Elena Isinbayeva who caused a furore with her anti-gay remarks at the World Athletics Championships in August.
The weather, however should pose little problem.
According to the Russian weather centre’s chief Sochi forecaster Valery Lukyanov, temperatures are near ideal for the first days of the Games, reaching up to 12 degrees Celsius by the sea but freezing nicely down to a minimum of minus 12 at night in the mountains.