Russia is preparing for a glitzy opening ceremony for the Winter Olympic Games in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi on Friday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will attend, along with some 40 other heads of state and leaders from around the world.
However, US President Barack Obama and a number of other European Union leaders will be conspicuously absent, as Russia battles criticism of its new law banning the spread of so-called “gay propaganda” to minors, which critics say could be used to crack down on gay rights in general.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, who passed the Olympic torch to Ban Thursday during the Olympic torch relay, told reporters Friday that preparations for the Games are going “pretty smoothly,” but allowed that the first few days of the Games usually have “a small hiccup here or there.” He did not say what those problems might be.
On Thursday, during the Olympic torch relay, Bach said he was glad to send an “Olympic message of peace and understanding,” as he passed the torch to Ban beside the Sochi River.
Fans cheered both men as they carried the Olympic flame toward Fisht Olympic Stadium, where the opening ceremonies will take place.
Although the ceremony will be held Friday night, qualifying rounds began Thursday in several sports.
Russia took the lead in team figure skating competition, a new team gold medal event at the Winter Olympics. Russia’s world pairs champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov crafted a thrilling performance, finishing first with 83.79 points.
Snowboarding slopestyle also debuted at the Winter Games Thursday. Austria’s Anna Gasser qualified for the women’s final with the top score of 95.50, while Canada’s Maxence Parrot secured his place in the men’s finals with the high score of 97.50.
On the security front, officials remain on high alert for possible terrorist attacks linked to the Olympic Games. U.S. Homeland Security officials are warning airlines flying to Russia to watch out for toothpaste tubes that may be filled with bomb-making materials. The officials cited no specific threat.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich has called media reports about the threats of explosives on flights to Russia a “misunderstanding.” He also said President Putin has said full-scale measures are being taken to guarantee security at the Sochi Olympics.
Russian authorities have spent an estimated $2 billion to shore up security in advance of the Sochi Olympics. Analysts have warned of possible attacks against targets such as train stations.
(Bolshoy ice dome. Photo: Sochi 2014 Winter Games/flickr.com)