The Winter Olympics are being held for the first time in Russia, a country known as much for its vast snow-buried landscapes as for literature, ballet and the Cold War decades of communism.
But the site of the Feb. 7-23 Games, which commence in 100 days, is the Black Sea resort of Sochi, a city of beaches and palm trees in the heart of the Russian Riviera.
Sochi, where Joseph Stalin’s favorite summer dacha is now a museum, is being transformed into a winter sports capital, as are the nearby slopes of Krasnaya Polyana in the Caucasus Mountains, where President Vladimir Putin likes to ski.
The makeover is part of Putin’s grand plan to sow patriotic pride in the new, capitalist Russia by returning the country to Olympic supremacy. But it’s going to cost more than any other Olympic Games — $50 billion, which is $10 billion more than China spent on its extravagant 2008 Summer Games and $44 billion more than Canada spent on the 2010 Winter Games.
Russia hopes the investment — as well as the home-field advantage — will be enough to lift its medal count far higher than the dismal total of 15 four years ago, which ranked fifth, behind even Austria and Norway.
The United States’ Olympic team, which competes on the soil of its old Soviet-era rival for the first time, plans to build on its world-leading haul of 37 medals from 2010. Skier Lindsey Vonn is back after reconstructive knee surgery, snowboarder Shaun White will go for a third consecutive gold in the halfpipe, figure skaters Meryl Davis and Charlie White are favored to win ice dancing for the first time in U.S. history, and X Games stars are stoked to capitalize on a batch of podium opportunities in new circus events added to the program.
“I fall, I get back up,” Vonn said on the Today show Tuesday during a U.S. Olympic Committee countdown-to-Sochi event in New York’s Times Square. “It’s who I am. Obviously, this was the biggest setback I’ve ever had, but I’m skiing really well. My knee feels great. I can’t tell which one is injured.”
South Florida’s Olympic hopefuls would feel right at home in Sochi. Short-track speedskater Eddy Alvarez, following the example of four-time, long-track Olympian Jennifer Rodriguez, has won two World Cup medals this season. Lauryn Williams, Olympic silver medalist in the 100-meter dash, is pushing for a spot on the bobsled team. Ex-driver Brian Shimer is coach of the men’s bobsled team that seeks more gold after breaking a 46-year winless streak in 2010.
As for hockey, the U.S. men skate for their first gold since the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 and four years after losing in overtime to Canada on Sidney Crosby’s shot heard across the continent. The U.S. women won the inaugural gold in 1998, but Canada, which won the gold medal tally in Vancouver/Whistler, has won every Olympic tournament since.
Curling, biathlon, ski jumping, luge and skeleton are among other sports adding to the action at an Olympics that could be full of political tension and lacking snow.
Athletes have voiced opposition to a Russian law that bans the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.” Foreigners who break the widely condemned law face $3,000 fines and 14-day jail sentences.
“It’s absolutely embarrassing that there are countries and people who are that intolerant, that ignorant,” said skier Bode Miller, bidding for a fifth Olympic berth.
Human Rights Watch has called on the International Olympic Committee to pressure Russia to repeal the law.
“The Sochi Olympics risk being remembered as the anti-gay Games unless the IOC is willing to stand up and defend the principles of its own Olympic charter,” said Jane Buchanan, HRW’s associate director for Europe and Central Asia.
Putin met with IOC president Thomas Bach on Monday and assured him that athletes and visitors will feel “comfortable regardless of their ethnicity, race or sexual orientation.” Yet a day earlier three LGBT activists flying rainbow flags as the Torch Relay passed through St. Petersburg were detained by police.
Putin faces other risks in the staging of the Games, including possible disruption by Chechen militants. A North Caucasus suicide bomber killed six on a Volgograd bus Monday, and marchers in Moscow on Sunday demanded the release of “political prisoners,” including Pussy Riot punk band members.
If not enough snow falls in the mountains above Sochi, organizers have stored 24.7 million cubic feet — learning a lesson from 2010 when helicopters had to deliver last-minute dumps at Canada’s venues. The Rosa Khutor Alpine Center has built the biggest artificial snow-making operation in Europe.
Defending downhill gold medalist Vonn, who postponed her return until Nov. 29 in Colorado, teenage slalom world champion Mikaela Shiffrin, three-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso and three-time 2013 world champ Ted “Shred” Ligety could be among the American stars on the slopes.
“It will be the longest Giant Slalom on the World Cup, ranging from 1:30 to 1:40,” Ligety wrote on his website after wearing a camera on a run down the course. Ligety, known for his sharply angled turns, said it is neither very steep nor technical, though. “My legs were burning midway not to even mention at the bottom.”
As always, the United States is deep in the snowboard events, which includes a slopestyle race in 2014. White has been training at a secluded private halfpipe in Australia. Others vying for spots are Scotty Lago, Louie Vito, Jamie Anderson, Elena Hight, Gretchen Bleiler, Arielle Gold, Hannah Teter and Kelly Clark, who has more career victories than anyone in the sport.
Shani Davis is after his third consecutive speedskating gold. In short track, J.R. Celski, Travis Jayner and Miami’s Alvarez try to take up where Apolo Anton Ohno left off.
Steven Holcomb aims to pilot his four-man “Night Train” to gold on Sochi’s curvy, technical track and win two-man as well.
Alaska’s Kikkan Randall, off a breakthrough World Cup season, could become the first U.S. cross-country skier to make the podium since 1976.
The other Lindsey, Lindsey Van, is the world champion in the new Olympic sport of women’s ski jumping. Another addition is halfpipe skiing, in which Americans Maddie Bowman, Simon Dumont and David Wise are X Games medalists.
Figure skating could be in for a changing of the guard with defending singles gold medalists Evan Lysachek and Kim Yu-Na both trying to recover from injuries in time for the Games. South Korea’s Kim said she is 70 percent recovered from a foot injury, “mostly pain-free and I can do all the triple jumps,” but Lysachek has not competed since 2010 and would have a difficult time beating Max Aaron, Adam Rippon and Jeremy Abbott for the two U.S. men’s spots — and they will be underdogs to Canada’s three-time world champion Patrick Chan in Sochi. Johnny Weir has retired, but the Russophile is sure to be an entertaining NBC commentator. The top U.S. women are Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold, who recently switched to Michelle Kwan’s coach, Frank Carroll. Japan’s Mao Asada has a formidable repertoire of jumps.
U.S. ice dancers Davis and White, who share a coach with and train near Detroit alongside 2010 gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, won worlds in 2011 and 2013.
Davis and White have chosen to skate their long program to Scheherazade, by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
“We feel this is the right moment,” White said of their choice for an Olympic season they hope will culminate in Sochi. “We have grown into skaters who can make the most of this special music.”