Five gold medals will be awarded at the Sochi Olympics Saturday as 16 days of competition begin in earnest.
Ninety-eight medal events will be contested at these 22nd Winter Games, 12 more than in Vancouver four years ago. Among the new events are women’s ski jumping, team figure skating, mixed relays in luge and biathlon, as well as some freestyle skiing and snowboarding events added to attract younger audiences.
Competition will take palace at the Olympic Park by the Black Sea, which features seven new indoor venues, as well as in the mountains where all the outdoor events are located, relatively close to one another, and reachable by bus or train in about an hour from Sochi. It is the most compact Winter Games ever.
In all, about 5,500 athletes and team officials are here from an expected 82 National Olympic Committees, the same number as Vancouver four years ago.
The United States has the largest delegation of athletes with 230, host Russia is next with 225 and Canada has 220.
Alan Ashley, Chief of Sport Performance for the U.S. Olympic Committee says American athletes have had great success internationally this season and that bodes well for a good showing in Sochi.
“Whether we win the medal count or not, I mean one of the things I can tell you is everybody comes here to compete. They come here to compete at the highest level, and we’ll see where the chips fall," said Ashley.
Ashley said that with dedication and perseverance, U.S. athletes have recently become more competitive in sports like biathlon and cross country skiing.
“By sticking with it for so long, they have developed their career in a way that they come here with a level of success where they really can have a good showing at an Olympic Games in sports in which we haven’t had that much success," he said.
The USOC’s Chief Executive Officer Scott Blackmun says the safety and security of athletes and the entire U.S. delegation is naturally a primary concern.
"As we always do, we work very closely with our State Department. Our State Department is in very close contact with the local authorities, and we react to situations as they arise, but we also have a lot of planning exercises in advance, and these Games are no different than any other Games in that respect," said Blackmun.
Blackmun added that the challenges at the Sochi Olympics are different because of the known terrorist threats, but he expressed confidence that the Russian authorities have been doing everything they can to keep everyone safe.
U.S. alpine skier Julie Mancuso, a four-time Olympian with a gold and two silver medals, shared her thoughts on the security issues.
“We’ve had a lot of, you know, headlines and people calling me [and saying] like ‘just be safe in Russia,’ and I think the issues within the country, it’s difficult, and as an athlete we’re here to compete and I just really trust in everyone keeping us safe. And I’m just here to really take it all in and enjoy the experience and try not to worry about anything else," said Mancuso.
Sergey Demidov, Deputy Chief of Sports with Russia’s Itar Tass News Agency, said in a VOA interview that the Russians are hoping all Olympic visitors will feel confident in the organization of these Games.
“We want all guests of the Olympic Games, all athletes from all the world to be really happy here. All we hope really from our hearts, we want you to look at the best side, you know not about all those [negative] Tweets [about some of the lodging issues on Twitter], you know, look at the bright side. Look around and you will see many great things," said Demidov.
Demidov said neither the Russian journalists nor the athletes are predicting how successful the Russian team will be.
“We don’t count medals. There is a common feeling that every medal - gold, silver or bronze - it doesn’t matter. It will be like a brilliant medal and that every participant, each of our 225 athletes on the Russian team is our real national hero, and all of them are just the same," he said.
Gold medals in five sports will be contested Saturday - women’s moguls in freestyle skiing, as well as a cross country event (7.5km+7.5km skiathlon), and the men’s 10 -kilometer biathlon, 5,000-meter speed skating and a new snowboarding event called slopestyle.