Security ramps up as ceremony kicks off Sochi Olympics

4:03 PM, Feb 7, 2014   |    comments
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Flag bearer Todd Lodwick leads the U.S. Olympic team onto the stage during the opening ceremony for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Fisht Olympic Stadium on Friday.

 


 


SOCHI, Russia - As mishaps go, it wasn't such a big deal that the only opening ceremony glitch Friday night to kick off the Sochi Games was a snowflake that was supposed to turn into an Olympic ring but failed to open.

Given all the talk about security, terrorism threats and malfunctioning hotel rooms leading up to the Winter Olympics, a little prop malfunction didn't seem like much of a big deal.

And it certainly didn't dampen the mood in Sochi now that the Games are finally here.

There were cheers and national pride as locals marveled at Sochi's transformation from sleepy resort into the international spotlight, and they particularly delighted in the telling of Russian history during the ceremony, which featured ballet, theater and poetry alongside military might and the race to outer space in the 1950s. Some in the crowd cried during the Moscow Sretensky Monastery Choir's singing of the national anthem.

While the official opening ceremonies included the presence of Russian president Vladimir Putin and various other influential leaders, the live site viewing party outside the Rosa Khutor hotel cluster in the mountains featured several other noteworthy characters.

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There was the man waving a Turkish flag and wearing a matching cape. A group of women dressed as Russian nesting dolls. And the most sociable member of the approximately 2,000 or so people in the crowd, a stray mutt who managed to pass through the stringent screening and stern faced security to find himself approaching spectators inside the chain linked viewing area with friendly tail wags.

Patrons in a creekside pizza joint had largely ignored the opening ceremony in the hour since the Russian contingent was introduced.

Then Putin stepped to the microphone.

More than a dozen customers rose to their feet and cheered when the president was introduced. They had cheered earlier when the Russian athletes marched in, with many taking out their smart phones to snap pictures of the flat screen televisions.

Though American fans were hard to identify in the mountains, there were a handful present in the Olympic Park who followed through with plans to attend the Games despite the constant attention on terror threats the past few weeks.

"I feel very confident. I didn't have the concern because I knew how important the games are," said Paige Nelson of San Francisco. "I felt like if any country could get it right it'd be Russia, just because of the scale of police and security measures they can put in place."

Those security measures - already stringent this week - were tightened even more Friday prior to the opening ceremonies.

For the first time since spectators and media members began arriving in Sochi, entrances to the Olympic Park were staffed with volunteers requiring both credentials and opening ceremony tickets to get in. Even credentialed media members were not allowed to walk through the park, where all the competition venues were built in a circle, without a ticket.

There was also an unmarked white blimp hovering above the Bolshoy Ice Dome, one of the two hockey venues, and another about 500 yards away. Later, as the ceremonies began, helicopters could be heard - but not seen - circling over Fisht Olympic Stadium.

The security measures created long lines and bottlenecks in high-density areas, such as the train station exit at Olympic Park. Cathy and Evans Prieston of Chambersburg, Penn., said they were frustrated by the time it took to move from one place to another but comforted by the obvious number of security personnel.

"I feel just as safe here as I feel anywhere else," Evans Prieston said. "I don't think they want to make a fool of themselves. They want to put their best foot forward. Imagine if something were to happen? It wouldn't be a good look for them."

More and more police and military offers have been visible each day this week around venues and housing areas. With terrorist threats from rebels in the nearby Caucasus mountain region getting significant attention, Russia has promised the most secure games in history with more than 40,000 security forces manning the so-called "Ring of Steel."

For Brandon Livey of Virginia, having so many officers visible added to the sense of security.

"I don't have any concerns," he said. "Coming here it was scary. Even coming on the plane was scary. It seemed like so many emails, so many warnings.

"I feel super safe. The military is everywhere. It's almost too safe. I've seen armed guards walking around. Yesterday we were in the park and we saw patrols, like SWAT teams. Six dudes, flak jackets, just patrolling."

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach on Friday laughed at the suggestion the security presence in the face of terrorist threats was significantly more overt at these Games than others.

"I remember we were led to the bus with armed machine guns over their shoulders," said Bach, who competed on the German fencing team in 1976, just four years after Israeli athletes were taken hostage and killed at the Summer Olympics in Munich. "Helicopters were flying, and the same when you went to training, you always had police car when you went to competition. We were living with it and their security was much more obvious and closer to you than it is here now."

The eruption of fireworks over the hotels in the mountain cluster was a bit of a surprise for the hundreds who had gathered to watch the ceremony on a big screen.

Security was tight all night. Everyone seemed to be aware that caution was advised.

So when the flashes of light and big booms started, it took a minute for the crowd to understand what was happening.

Once they did, they erupted in a celebration of pride and anticipation.

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