The Olympic torch and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, arrived in the Winter Games host city of Sochi on Wednesday as organisers rushed to complete preparations for the event and Putin declared the country “ready”.
Seven years after its successful bid stunned the world and paved the way for the hosting of the biggest event in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, organisers are now applying the finishing touches for the opening of the 22nd Winter Olympics.
Yet concerns still remain over Russia’s suitability as a venue, with another anti-Games ecological activist sent to jail and protests planned worldwide over Russia’s now notorious anti-gay law.
The Olympic flame was taken by runners through the outskirts of Sochi and later carried up by train to Rosa Khutor, where the alpine events are being held.
The main stadium is in the community of Adler, 40 kilometres south of Sochi, and the flame is expected to be carried there by runners, on trains and on boats in time for Friday’s Opening Ceremonies.
Flame carriers are set to include Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, the IOC president Thomas Bach as well as Russian stars such as the pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva.
“Russia has worked towards this moment for seven years. It has been a national project,” Putin said as he visited the Olympic Village. “Russia is ready for the Olympic Games.”
A particular concern this week is that not all accommodation for the media has been ready on time, with reporters swapping tales of last-minute repairs. However, organisers insist nobody has gone without a room.
Putin was given a guided tour around the coastal Olympic Village, where athletes in non-mountain sports such as ice hockey and skating are based.
Putin said in an address to the Russian team that “millions are going to be watching for every one of your performances”.
He added: “We are really counting on you. We have a young, very promising team and I do not doubt that you will do everything to be successful.”
Russia won only three gold medals at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, seen as a national debacle by most Russians, but experts say the team are unlikely to do much better on home soil.
Security at the Winter Games has also been a major issue, with tens of thousands of members of security forces on duty to ward off the threat of attacks from militants from the nearby northern Caucasus.
“This is always a worry, not just at international events but at political ones, too,” said Putin, recalling the Boston Marathon bombings carried out last year by Islamist militants from the troubled Caucasus region, which killed three and wounded 260.
A top US counter-terrorism official said the biggest security threat facing the Games was a possible attack in areas outside of Sochi and its heavily guarded venues.
Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counter-terrorism Center, said the primary threat came from the Caucasus Emirate, which he described as “probably the most prominent terrorist group in Russia”.
Barack Obama, the US president, has been assured that his country is “taking all appropriate steps regarding the safety of Americans” at the Games, which continue through February 23.
The Games, with an estimated price tag of US$51 billion (Dh187.3bn), are the most expensive in history but also among the most controversial.
The gay rights group All Out is organising protests in 19 cities around the world, including London and New York, urging official Olympic sponsors to “break their silence” on Russia’s controversial legislation banning gay propaganda to minors.
In a protest in Melbourne, a few dozen protesters gathered outside Flinders Street railway station, brandishing pictures with the slogan “Olympic sponsors speak out now!”
Environmental activists have criticised the ecological damage caused by the Games.
Courts in the Sochi region have this week jailed two activists from the anti-Games group Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC) for terms of 15 and five days on charges of petty offences.
The aim is “to intimidate the ecologist community who consider the holding of these Games to be a national shame,” the EWNC said.
In a nod to Russia, the IOC’s Bach in a speech on Tuesday said everybody must fight together against “discrimination on grounds of … sexual orientation or any other prejudice”.
But he said the Olympic Village should be protected from political demonstrations “however important and precious the cause may be”.
He added: “Sport should not be a stage for political dissent or for trying to score points in internal or external political contests,” he said.
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