Putin has staked his reputation on hosting a safe and successful
Games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where a spectacle before
40,000 spectators at the new Fisht Stadium will signal the start of
the full sporting programme.
He will be joined by leaders from China, Japan and about 40 other
countries in a show of support despite an international outcry over
Russia's "gay propaganda" law passed last year, which critics say
curtails the rights of homosexuals.
U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande,
British Prime Minister David Cameron and German President Joachim
Gauck are not attending the Games, and the U.S. delegation includes
openly gay representatives.
Despite grumblings about poor accommodation and tight security, the
mood among competitors and officials after a handful of early
qualifying events in Sochi and at the mountain base 40 km (25 miles)
to the northeast was upbeat.
"Conditions offered to the athletes are absolutely outstanding,"
said French Olympic Committee president Denis Masseglia on a clear,
Some 37,000 security personnel are on high alert over threats by
Islamist militant groups based in the nearby north Caucasus region
to attack the February 7-23 Games, the most expensive ever staged at
an estimated cost of $50 billion.
Separatist guerrillas seeking an independent Islamic state in
Chechnya and neighboring regions of southern Russia have vowed to
disrupt the Olympics, which they say are taking place on land seized
from Caucasus tribes in the 19th century.
Despite a "ring of steel" around venues, Russian forces fear a woman
suspected of planning a suicide bombing may have slipped through.
Security analysts believe that an attack is in fact more likely
elsewhere in Russia to humiliate Putin, who launched a war to crush
a Chechen rebellion in 1999.
Twin suicide bombings killed at least 34 people in December in
Volgograd, 400 miles northeast of Sochi.
Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin on Friday tweeted to people in the
capital "to be especially vigilant and careful on the metro, on
ground transportation, at train stations etc." now that the Games
were about to begin.
Underlining international unease over the threat of militant
violence, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration is
temporarily banning carry-on liquids, aerosols, gels and powders on
flights between Russia and the United States.
The United States issued a warning on Wednesday to airports and some
airlines flying to Russia for the Olympics to watch for toothpaste
tubes that could hold ingredients to make a bomb on board a plane.
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak told reporters in Sochi that
Russian security services were working with colleagues from Europe
and North America to minimize the risk of attack.
"There is no reason to believe that the level of danger in Sochi is
greater than at any other point on the planet, be it Boston, London,
New York or Washington," he said.
[to top of second column]
GOOGLE TARGETS "GAY PROPAGANDA" LAW
In addition to fears over security, Russia, hosting the Winter Games
for the first time, has been under fire since passing legislation
against promoting gay propaganda among minors. Putin says it
protects young people, and has stressed that homosexuals would not
face discrimination at the Olympics.
Google placed a rainbow version of its logo on its search page
featuring the six colors on the gay pride flag — red, orange,
yellow, green, blue and purple.
The page also includes a quote from the Olympic charter underlining
the right to practice sport without discrimination.
Google Inc. declined to comment.
Konstantin Ernst, in charge of the opening ceremony, said Russian
girl band t.A.T.u. would perform during the pre-show.
But he would not be drawn on whether Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova
were chosen because they had shared a steamy kiss in the video to
their 2002 hit "All the Things She Said".
The duo later announced they were not in a relationship, but have
spoken out in support of the gay community in Russia.
Ernst gave little away about the content of the 2-1/2 hour show,
although he said it would draw heavily on Russia's rich history of
classical music rather than its less recognized pop scene, unlike
the opening of the Summer Games in London in 2012.
He promised innovation, surprises and a performance of the Olympic
anthem by renowned Russian opera singer Anna Netrebko. When asked
how the Olympic flame would be lit, he replied in English: "This is
the biggest secret ever."
Several competitors said they hoped the thrills and spills on ice
and snow in Sochi and the nearby mountains would take center stage
once the Games were in full flow at the weekend.
"I don't really feel like the Olympics is a place for that kind of
politics ... I think it's a place for sports and a place for
cultures to put aside their differences and compete," said veteran
U.S. Alpine skier Bode Miller.
Organizers have defended the costs of staging the Sochi Games, amid
concern from Olympic officials that the huge price tag will put
potential bidders off in future.
They said much of the infrastructure built for 2014 was designed to
be used long after the Games finished, and the plan was to turn
Sochi into a year-round resort, international sports center and
(Additional reporting by Timothy Heritage in Sochi and Julien Pretot
in Rosa Khutor; writing by Mike Collett-White; editing by Ossian
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