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sochi  olympic gamesThe Sochi Games begin on Friday amid a feeling of relief as well as anticipation.

After months of politics dominating the Sochi agenda, the focus will turn to sporting endeavour on the ice and snow when Russian President Vladimir Putin declares the Games open at a ceremony in the Fisht Stadium.

These have been dubbed Putin‘s Games, not without an element of scorn. Sochi has been mired in calls for boycotts, concerns over terrorism, criticism over rising costs and many other issues which have made for negative headlines.

But now the Games will belong to the athletes. At least, that‘s the hope as well as belief of the new International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach.

“The Olympics stage is set for the athletes, the Olympic stage is ready for the best winter athletes of the world,” he said.

The first winter Olympics in Russia will, he says, be a winter Games “milestone” – a record number of 87 nations taking part and record number of more than 200 nations taking television broadcasts.

But the Games have also been a well-documented presidential prestige act and propaganda show.

From the moment the Sochi Games was conceived by Putin in his Black Sea summer residence, to the start of the 65,000-kilometre torch relay – which even included a stopover in Space – culinating in the lighting of the cauldron in the Olympic stadium, this has been Putin‘s show.

He, too, will have every reason to feel relieved that by the time the flame is doused and the baton passed on to Pyeongchang in South Korea on February 23, the sporting fortnight-and-a-bit will have passed off without any major hitches.

The 51-billion-dollar bill for the Games is the price paid for showcasing the achievements of the new Russia under his leadership and helping to transform a moribund region.

For many critics, some within the ranks of the Olympic movement, it is a high price to pay.

Gay rights, crackdowns on human rights activists, environmental damage, massive corruption, wretched conditions for Olympic construction workers, heavy security – all have put question marks over the Games.

As a result there will be some conspicuous absentees from Friday‘s opening ceremony in the just-completed 750-million-dollar arena.

Although more than 40 heads of state and government are expected to attend, US President Barack Obama is just one world leader who decided not to visit.

Instead Washington has sent a low-key delegation which pointedly includes prominent gay athletes such as women‘s tennis champion Billie Jean King and Olympic figure skating gold medallist Brian Boitano.

Tension has been further heightened by the deadly suicide attacks of Volgograd in December, carried out by militants in the Caucasus region who have threatened the Olympics.

Russia has a 40,000-strong security force deployed in and around the sealed-off Olympic Park in Sochi and in the Krasnaya Polyana mountains hosting the snow events.

Two US Navy vessels with 600 sailors are also in the Black Sea to offer support if asked by Russian officials.

Bach, at his first major event since succeeding Jacques Rogge as IOC president in September, has been supportive of the Russian hosts but is mindful of the criticism and says the Olympics needs to examine its role in society.

The Games thus also represent the start of a debate on how the Olympics can remain credible and sustainable post-Sochi.

For the athletes here, perfect conditions look to be in place. The weather forecast for the next few days is favourable; Sochi hopes to escape some of the weather-related problems which dogged Vancouver 2010.

The Black Sea resort may be the warmest venue in the history of the winter Games, but Russian authorities have planned for that as well with a “guaranteed snow” programme – enough stored snow to deal with any shortages.

Olympic officials, keen to see a Games free of doping scandals, have announced a record number of 2,453 doping tests before and during the Games.

Snowboard icon Shaun White, alpine skiers such as Slovenia‘s Tina Maze or Germany‘s Maria Hoefl-Riesch, the four-time ski jumping Olympic champion Simon Ammann or the biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen could be among the stars to stamp their mark on the next two weeks.

The Russian hosts will be aiming to be near the top of the medals standings, with a vast improvement over their Vancouver performance when they were only 11th in the medals standings. A victory for the men‘s ice-hockey team would raise the roof in the Bolshoy Ice Dome.

The Games sees 12 new events in eight disciplines. Drawing on the wildly-popular X Games, half of the new events, including ski and snowboard slopestyle, come from the annual extreme sports competition.

Not only faster, higher, stronger, but maybe younger and hipper – as well as costlier – for another Olympic motto for Sochi.

DPA

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