Amid controversies, questions and threats of violence, many Russians want the world to feel welcome in Sochi

Published: Thursday, Feb. 6 2014 5:25 p.m. MST

The Olympic Cauldron is illuminated against the night sky Thursday, one day before it will be lit at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Robert F. Bukaty, AP

SOCHI, Russia — The athletes could not hear the cheers and the applause. They could not feel the pride. They could not see the smiles on the faces of those who watched them perform a near-perfect short program on the first day of Olympic competition in the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

That’s because these fans didn’t have tickets to the competition at Iceberg Skating Palace.

But the fact that Russian pairs skaters Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov couldn’t appreciate the adoration of these vocal fans didn’t matter to the delighted patrons, who were enjoying dinner in a temporary restaurant a few miles away.

The traditional Russian eatery is nestled among newly constructed hotels that house journalists and corporate sponsors from around the world.

While some dining at this restaurant that didn’t exist a year ago are volunteers for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, others are just people who’ve traveled from all across Russia hoping to enjoy the magic that comes with the promise of the games.

“I think it’s great,” said Nikita Blagodarnyi, who traveled from St. Petersburg to experience the 2014 Olympics. “For the first time in Russia it’s feeling like something new, something we have never seen. We know it’s not cheap. It’s very, very expensive, but it’s so good.”

While these games come with the highest price tag in Winter Olympics history — nearly $50 billion estimated by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak — they also bring unprecedented hope.

“We should show our country to other countries, to spectators, and maybe to potential investors who don’t know anything about our country, like whether we have bears (roaming) the streets,” he joked.

Athletes see the Olympics as the highest level of competition in sports. Because the contests are as much about fair play and equal opportunity, there is an air of sportsmanship that may not exist at most elite-level competitions. Athletes come to the Olympics for many reasons, but most often, it’s to prove they’re the best in the world at their sport. The fact that they get to do it in the name of their countries only adds to the mystique.

“I’m on cloud nine here,” said Brittany Bowe, a long-track speedskater competing in her first Olympic Games. “It’s fun seeing all the different athletes, all the different venues. It’s kind of surreal being in the Olympic Park. But then I get to the oval and it just feels like I’m home, and that’s where I’m at peace. I just can't wait to compete."

Fans, on the other hand, come because they want to witness history. They hope to enjoy remarkable achievements. They want to feel the joy of seeing something special happen to someone to whom they relate — even if it’s only because they share a homeland.

“Our country is open for other people, for the world,” said Kate Dranko, a recreational snowboarder who believes visitors will be pleasantly surprised by Russia’s hospitality and beauty. “It’s with great pleasure that we can invite guests to our country. It’s a great opportunity for all Russians.”

Countries and communities hope to host the games for a laundry list of reasons, but first and foremost is the economic development they hope comes from the exposure. Those who host believe there is transformative power in the act of inviting the world to a party paid for by communities that have a lot of other needs.

They know not everyone embraces the games.

Host cities, and the countries that support them, nearly always deal with controversy and questions. People are divided most often on whether the expense of hosting the games is ever worth it.

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