SOCHI, RUSSIA – A day after Russia opened the Winter Olympics with a patriotic snapshot of its history and culture, it seemed the home country had the place mostly to itself. Thousands came to Olympic Park on a bright, springlike day to cheer on hockey players and speedskaters, watch hip-hop dancers, and take photos with the Olympic rings and cauldron.
The vast majority were Russian, save for a few others recognizable by language or national colors: a clump of Italians, a handful of Germans, a cluster of orange-clad speedskating fans from the Netherlands. And exactly one individual wearing the Stars and Stripes.
Sporting one of the crazy-quilt Ralph Lauren sweaters worn by the U.S. contingent in Friday’s Opening Ceremony, the man was exuberantly high-fiving passersby, with his attire and behavior making him the only obvious American in the entire 480-acre place.
Except that he wasn’t American, at all.
“I don’t speak English,’’ he said, when asked where he got the sweater. “I’m Albanian.’’
Worries over terrorism caused many Americans to stay home from these Olympics, and there had been speculation that a bevy of other serious issues would dampen the mood. The buildup to Friday’s Opening Ceremony focused primarily on Sochi’s lack of readiness for these Games — from crummy hotel conditions to unfinished construction projects to an abundance of stray dogs roaming the city.
But with Saturday’s official start of competition along the subtropical Black Sea coast and in alpine venues in the picturesque Caucasus Mountains, the spotlight finally shifted to the athletes and their pursuit of medals.
And with that, the Games finally felt like a party.
At the cross-country skiing venue, a group of Swedish fans gathered behind the grandstand to dance, sing and apply face paint. Fans from various countries tooted horns and waved flags. Temperatures were so comfortable under a bright sun that two male Russian fans removed their shirts in an act that didn’t seem all that daring.
Afton’s Jessie Diggins, who placed eighth in the women’s skiathlon in her Olympic debut, called the atmosphere “so incredibly cool.”
Down in the coastal cluster of venues, the crowd arrived late for the women’s hockey game between the United States and Finland, the first of the Olympic tournament. Though the Shayba Arena was sparsely populated 15 minutes before the noon faceoff, a crowd announced at 4,135 — about 60 percent of capacity — trickled in.
The fans created a lively atmosphere with vuvuzelas and thundersticks, and they wiggled happily to the chicken dance during the third period. A face-painting station applied the Russian red, white and blue stripes to the faces of little boys and the occasional adult.
As “Get The Party Started’’ played over the loudspeakers, people lined up at ticket booths and wrapped themselves in Russian flags to ward off the occasional chilly breeze rushing in from the Black Sea. Teenagers sunned themselves under the palm trees outside Adler Arena, where the Dutch swept the medals in the men’s 5,000-meter speedskating, while people of all ages posed in front of the roaring cauldron and the Olympic rings.
Story lines to watch
Attendance figures could become a story to watch as the Games unfold, though Dmitry Chernyshenko, CEO of the Sochi 2014 organizing committee, said Saturday that there have been long lines to buy tickets and that extra cash registers have been added.
Security around the Games seems vigilant but not obtrusive. A ticket and a spectator pass with a photo are required to enter any venue, including Olympic Park itself. Announcements reminded fans to display their passes prominently.
Those on security detail in the park were not openly displaying weapons. At the train station in Adler, a major transportation hub for thousands of spectators heading to Olympic Park, there were plenty of law enforcement personnel — including Cossacks with tall fur hats and people wearing camouflage — and passengers had to pass through two sets of metal detectors and be checked with a pat-down.
Two Americans — curlers Jessica Schultz of Minneapolis and Debbie McCormick of Rio, Wis. — took in the scene at the park as they walked back to the Olympic Village after a practice. Both were still giddy after being part of the Opening Ceremony, and they said the Olympic buzz seemed unaffected thus far by the issues swirling around the Games.
“It’s hard to say what might happen,’’ McCormick said. “But the Opening Ceremony was packed. If that’s an indicator, I think things will be fine.’’
These Games offer any number of intriguing story lines, including the revival of decorated U.S. skier Bode Miller, who will try to win his sixth Olympic medal Sunday in the downhill at age 36 after missing last season because of a knee injury.
The hockey tournament is always uber-intense, and the U.S. women’s cross-country team has a legitimate shot to make history by winning its first Olympic medal.
The first official day of competition produced historic moments. Dutch speedskater Sven Kramer set an Olympic record in the men’s 5,000 meters in 6:10.76. And U.S. snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg claimed the first gold medal in men’s slopestyle, an event that made its Olympic debut. He became only the fourth U.S. athlete to win gold in the first medal event of the Winter Games.
A single sign that greeted fans at the cross-country venue perhaps best underscored the sense of relief that accompanied the start of competition.
“Hurray! You’ve made it!”