Olympic Events Kick Off Under Shadow Of Security Concerns
Olympic competition began under gorgeous blue skies Thursday in Sochi, with snowboarders soaring in a new event for the games — slopestyle. Boarders performed the remarkable tricks and twists that make slopestyle a thrill to watch. American Chas Guldemond placed fifth in the first heat, qualifying him for Saturday's semifinals.
But while the action was underway on Rosa Khutor Mountain, Russian government officials were down in what's called the Coastal Cluster, trying to allay fears about security around the games.
Muslim insurgents have threatened to attack these Winter Games, located in a tumultuous region of the world and just minutes from a disputed border. But at a news conference, Russian officials attempted to downplay the concerns.
"Based on the information that we have received, there is no reason to believe that Sochi is under more threat than any other city on the planet," said Dmitry Kozak, Russian deputy prime minister.
He said the security situation in Sochi is no worse than in New York, Boston or Washington, D.C.
There also have been concerns about whether the Sochi organizers could get the games going smoothly. NPR's Robert Smith reports that in the early outings, hundreds of spectators were on hand — meaning the stands weren't empty, but also weren't packed. Spectators faced long security lines and logistical challenges to get to venues.
Many of those taking the train up to the Mountain Cluster were volunteers or in security uniforms. Getting to the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, where Slopestyle made its Olympic debut, required taking the train and then a bus and a gondola.
Slopestyle is an extreme snow sport that mixes acrobatic jumps and rail sliding. The course has been controversial. Some athletes said after practice that it had jumps that were simply too extreme and dangerous. American snowboarder Shaun White dropped out of the slopestyle competition, blaming the course.
Ice skating also has a new team competition in these games, and the men's and pairs skaters are kicking things off with their short programs Thursday afternoon.
The Sochi Games officially open Friday, and NPR's Tamara Keith has this report on which athlete Team USA has chosen to carry the flag:
NPR reporters Tamara Keith, Robert Smith and Sonari Glinton contributed to this report.