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Olympics / Sports

The flag bearer for the team from Venezuela shows his enthusiasm as he enters Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, Russia, during the Opening Ceremony for the Winter Olympics, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. (Chuck Myers/MCT)

Despite terrorism concerns, Sochi opening hits high notes

SOCHI, Russia--The townsfolk of Sochi swarmed the waterfront Friday night in a proud but subdued celebration to the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Thousands marched into a congested space by the South Pier with smiles and baby strollers despite serious concerns of terrorism that have weighed on the Sochi Games since the end of December when a bomber killed at least 15 in a Volgograd train station.

"Everybody should come out," said Lika Basmanova, a Moscow translator.

She dismissed issues of terrorism even with a lack of a major police presence around the city, saying "People are here because they think security is so strong."

Sochi native Natalia Litvinenko, 19, also wasn't afraid to hang out with two friends on a park bench in the tranquil city center about 15 minutes from the waterfront. Using a smartphone to translate between English and Russian, the medical student said no one she knows worries about the possibility of an attack. Instead, she talked about the joy of having the Olympics come to her hometown.

"We have waited for this for a long time," Litvinenko said.

So did a group of 100 Americans who discovered two days before the Opening Ceremony that they no longer had rooms on the cruise ships they reserved.

Working with San Diego's Ludus Tours, some had paid for the rooms more than a year ago.

It was another example of Sochi's organizational problems that have been highlighted by media reports for the week leading to Opening Ceremony.

Ludus's owner Adam Dailey works with a low-profit margin to help families of Olympians get to major international sporting events. The former distance runner serves USA Luge, USA Curling and a handful of other national governing bodies who want to help the athletes' parents.

By Friday night almost all of Dailey's clients had been relocated--many to the newly constructed media housing next to Olympic Park.

They congregated at a cafe to eat platters of grilled meats and vegetables and celebrate getting a bed.

"It's a relief for everybody," said Raffaella Cinti, Ludus' point person in Sochi.

But she has more clients coming Monday so her nightmare isn't over.

Dailey never got a good explanation on what happened. But it sounded like a game of hotel musical chairs.

Dimitry Feld, USA Luge's manager of sponsorship and social events, was frustrated with what happened, but wasn't blaming Ludus. The group couldn't figure out who caused the problem--the cruise line or the Games' organizers.

"The Olympics is all about unifying people and making everybody happy," Feld said.

The Soviet emigre had encouraged Americans to attend the Sochi Games because he wanted them to see a new Russia.

Instead, the experience has felt like "somebody smacked you behind the back," he said.

While organizers spent a reported $51 billion to turn Sochi into a destination spot, the crowds at the viewing areas were almost exclusively Russian. The Olympics usually is a melting pot of international sports fans, and the Sochi Games still might draw many. But the foreigners seemed to stay away from the big crowds Friday night, perhaps spooked by the intense coverage of security concerns.

Sochi organizers followed the lead of other host cities in dressing up city plazas into gathering points to make the Olympics seem more inclusive, despite limited ticket availability.

While almost every plaza overflowed in London during Opening Ceremony two years ago, not much took place outside the pier.

Ninety minutes before the proceedings began, about a dozen folks listened to Russian folk music on a stage near the train station. Even fewer watched a big band play at the main square near the Museum of Sports Glory.

But Sochi is one of Europe's longest cities so it was easy to disperse crowds and perhaps have better control against an attack. The Adler district, where the Olympic venues are located, held a celebration at its central park. It drew so many celebrants that the civic center experienced nightmarish traffic just before midnight.

In the end, nothing major happened. And for Sochi organizers--as well as the city itself--that was what they had hoped all along.

(c)2014 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

Visit the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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