SOCHI, Russia -- Despite all the anxiety over terrorism threats and criticism for anti-gay laws, poisoned stray dogs and unfinished news media hotels, the sun shined brightly Thursday on this temperate resort town known as the "Russian Riviera," sandwiched between the snowy peaks of the Caucasus Mountains and the pebble beaches kissing the Black Sea coastline.
The Olympic flame traveled to outer space and the North Pole, and now, ready or not, the 2014 Sochi Olympics are here.
The games will not officially begin until the Opening Ceremony Thursday night, but competition got underway 32 hours earlier, with qualification rounds Thursday in snowboard slopestyle, ladies' moguls and the opening night of team figure skating.
Hometown favorite Evgeny Plushenko, the three-time Olympic medalist and 2006 world champion, brought down the house at the Iceberg Skating Palace with his dramatic short program, set to tango music. Russia's rich ballet culture was evident in Plushenko's every move, and is expected to be highlighted again during the Opening Ceremony, with an appearance by St. Petersburg prima ballerina Ulyana Lopatkina.
Large groups of athletes checked into the Olympic Village on the eve of these $51 billion games, while the Jamaican bobsled team awaited its lost luggage and equipment after having to make an unplanned stop in Philadelphia because of bad weather. Friendly volunteers in colorful jackets resembling the traditional matryoshka nesting dolls are all over the city, directing visitors.
Russian organizers and leaders of the U.S. Olympic Committee were hoping the storylines would switch to the athletes now that competition has begun, but questions about security continued Thursday morning as news broke that the U.S. Homeland Security Department had warned airlines flying directly to Russia that terrorists might try to smuggle explosives on board, hidden in toothpaste tubes.
Scott Blackmun, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, when asked about the toothpaste threat, said: "I don't want to talk about specific responses to specific threats because I think it actually impairs our security plan to do that, but I will say that we were made aware of it, and I can't really say anything beyond that."
He said the USOC is in close contact with the State Department and it will react to situations as they arise.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said Sochi is ready for a safe Olympics, and that the "security level in Sochi is equitable with New York, London, Boston and any other world spot, as terror threat has no limits," he said. "Based on information we received from our intelligence services, there's no reason to believe Sochi is under more threat than any city on the planet."
Islamic terrorists have threatened to disrupt the games, so the Sochi area has been turned into a fortress, with 40,000 police officers and soldiers -- seven times the number at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, a city much larger than Sochi. Two U.S. Navy warships -- the command-and-control vessel USS Mount Whitney and the frigate USS Taylor -- are stationed in the Black Sea in case of emergency.