Putin declares Russia ‘ready’ as torch comes to Sochi

Agence France-Presse

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Concerns still remain over Russia's suitability as a venue, with a another anti-Games ecological activist sent to jail and protests planned worldwide over Russia's now notorious anti-gay law

WELCOME TO SOCHI. Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) takes part in a ceremony of greeting Russian athletes in the Olympic village in Sochi, Russia, 05 February 2014. Alexei Nikolsky/Ria Novosti/Kremlin pool/EPA

SOCHI, Russia – Russia paraded the Olympic torch through host city Sochi on Wednesday, February 5 – two days before the official opening of the Winter Games – as President Vladimir Putin declared the country “ready”.

Seven years after its successful bid stunned the world and paved the way for the hosting of the biggest event in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, organizers are now making the finishing touches for the opening of the 22nd Winter Olympics.

Yet concerns still remain over Russia’s suitability as a venue, with a another anti-Games ecological activist sent to jail and protests planned worldwide over Russia’s now notorious anti-gay law. (READ: Putin says gays at Olympics must ‘leave children alone’)

The Olympic flame was taken by runners through the outskirts of Sochi and later carried up by train to Rosa Khutor, where the alpine events are being held.

The stadium itself is 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Sochi and the flame is expected to be carried there by runners, on trains and on boats in time for Friday’s (February 7) opening ceremony.

Flame carriers are set to include UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and IOC president Thomas Bach as well as Russian stars such as pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva.

“Russia has worked towards this moment for seven years. It has been a national project,” said Putin as he visited the Olympic village. “Russia is ready for the Olympic Games.”

There has been particular concern that not all accommodation for the media has been ready on time, with reporters swapping tales of last-minute repairs but organizers insist nobody has gone without a room.

‘Millions will be watching you’

Putin was given a guided tour around the coastal Olympic village, where athletes in non-mountain sports such as ice hockey and skating are based, by Isinbayeva, who has long been one of his most public backers.

Putin said in an address to the Russian team that “millions are going to be watching for every one of your performances.”

“We are really counting on you. We have a young, very promising team and I do not doubt that you will do everything to be successful.”

Russia won only three gold medals at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver – seen as a national debacle by most Russians – but experts say it is unlikely to do much better on home soil.

Security at the Winter Games has also been a major issue, with tens of thousands of members of security forces on duty to ward off the threat of attacks from militants from the nearby Northern Caucasus.

“This (security) is always a worry, not just at international events but at political ones too,” admitted Putin, recalling the Boston marathon bombings carried out by Islamist militants from the troubled Caucasus region, which killed three and wounded 260.

‘Sport not a stage for politics’

The Games, with an estimated price tag of $50 billion, are the most expensive in history but also among the most controversial. (READ: Sochi Games promote ‘dictatorship’ – Kasparov)

Gay rights group All Out is organizing protests in 19 cities around the world – including London and New York – urging sponsors to “break their silence” on Russia’s controversial legislation banning gay propaganda to minors.

In a protest in Melbourne, a few dozen protesters gathered outside Flinders Street railway station, brandishing pictures with the slogan “Olympic sponsors speak out now!”

Environmental activists have criticized the ecological damage caused by the Games.

Courts in the Sochi region have this week jailed two activists from the anti-Games group Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC) for terms of 15 and five days on charges of petty offenses.

The aim is “to intimidate the ecologist community who consider the holding of these Games to be a national shame,” the EWNC said.

In a nod to Russia, IOC President Bach in a speech on Tuesday, February 4, said everybody must fight together against “discrimination on grounds of… sexual orientation or any other prejudice.”

But he said the Olympic Village should be protected from political demonstrations “however important and precious the cause may be.”

Sport should not be a “stage for political dissent or for trying to score points in internal or external political contests,” he said. – Rappler.com

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