TIME olympics

Sage Kotsenburg Takes First U.S. Gold

Winner Kotsenburg of the U.S. celebrates after the men's snowboard slopestyle final competition at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games in Rosa Khutor
Winner Sage Kotsenburg of the U.S. celebrates after the men's snowboard slopestyle final competition at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games in Rosa Khutor, Feb. 8, 2014. Mike Blake / Reuters

Snowboarder wins slopestyle event after Shaun White's withdrawal

The first gold medal of the winter 2014 Olympics has been won by snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg for his first-place finish Saturday in men’s slopestyle snowboarding.

The long-haired Utahan, 20, was the third rider of 12 in the slopestyle final, and took the gold after an inventive run that involved landing a trick he’d never done before, USA Today reports. “It’s pretty sick to see that some weird, creative stuff got rewarded,” Kotsenburg said.

The difficult course attracted controversy when Team USA superstar Shaun White pulled out of the event citing safety concerns, leaving the field open for contenders like Kotsenburg, as well as Norway’s Staale Sandbech (silver) and Canada’s Mark McMorris (bronze).

[USA Today]

More: Highlights From The Opening Ceremony in Sochi

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Russian Through History: The Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremonies

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Opening Ceremony
Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Fisht Olympic Stadium on Feb. 7, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. Clive Mason / Getty Images

The Sochi opening spectacle tells the story of Russia--blowing past some awkward parts--and NBC tries to keep up.

Watching the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony could at times feel like going to the party of someone you barely knew. We were guests, but it wasn’t really about us. The ceremony, in a way like this whole Olympics, felt like a story Russia was telling the world, but most of all a story it was telling itself, about a vital, proud, storied country on the rise–and don’t worry too much about those Stalinist-purge and gay-repression things.

It began with a Russian girl’s Wonderland trip through the Cyrillic alphabet. (Why are so many Olympic opening ceremonies highly stylized children’s nightmares?) It ended with a highly selective trip through Russian history. On the way it passed troikas of horses, cosmonauts, and War and Peace. This ceremony was so thoroughly Russian you could keep it in your freezer and pour shots of it.

And its version of Russian history, especially in the 20th century, was so smoothed over you could skate on it. While the visually stunning pastiche of Russian history represented the 1917 revolution–a red locomotive amid constructivist art–it skipped over the bloody excesses of Stalinist Russia in favor of a bit of World War II and a whole lot of Soviet ’50s teenyboppers. The turbulent recent history, perestroika, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia’s lurches toward and away from democracy, were summed up by a girl letting go of a red balloon.

Of course, it was Vladimir Putin’s show, and it’s no surprise the host country would try to cast itself in an optimistic light. It was up to the broadcasters of NBC to put this fantasia in a frame of reality. That was ostensibly the point, after all, in making the ceremony the only part of the Olympics NBC would not livestream online. (The real reason, more likely, was primetime ratings.) The ceremony, we were told, needed NBC’s journalists to put it in proper context.

And often they did. Bob Costas, still suffering from an uncomfortable-looking and uncomfortable-to-look-at case of pinkeye, kicked off the evening interviewing President Obama about relations with Russia: Were they turning for the worse? Was Putin an ally or antagonist? What was the U.S. doing to protest Russia’s restrictive laws on homosexuality? It was also a very smart move to hire as a commentator The New Yorker’s David Remnick, who has written extensively about the country and talked about the tensions the ceremony was embodying–for instance, modern Russians’ conflicted feelings about the Soviet past. “This is highly idealized,” Remnick noted dryly, as The Great Patriotic War (WWII) quickly dissolved into a sockhop with cosmonauts.

But NBC, like the host country, also had to balance history with entertainment, news with spectacle–and, as in London two summers ago, the balance most often crashed to Earth in the color commentary, with Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira, reading factoids listlessly and reassuring their audience that, don’t worry, all these countries were overwhelming to them too! At one point, Vieira explained that the Parade of Nations was organized by alphabetical order in Cyrillic, the Russian alphabet: “If you need more information, Google it!” Later in the parade, Lauer explained that “YOLO” stands for “You Only Live Once.” Context! (The most striking thing in the parade, as in London, was the number of athletes squinting into rectangles, shooting selfies and smartphone video.)

“It’s often impossible to separate the Olympics from politics,” Vieira said, here more than many places. But when it was possible to, the ceremony was often strikingly gorgeous. The designers of the spectacle did wondrous things with light, in particular a Swan Lake ballet sequence in which the dancers wore glowing blue strands that made them look like graceful jellyfish. (Unfortunately, NBC edited out parts, like, reportedly, an anti-bias statement by from the IOC president, not to mention a weird, fanciful segment with the Olympic mascots–a bear, a hare, and a snow leopard.) The biggest hitch was a symbolic doozy: one of the five snowflakes meant to expand into the Olympic rings was stuck, as if placing an asterisk on Sochi.

And of course, it ended with the Olympic flame: a Firebird-inspired torch lighting a row of flame jets that burst into flame at the cauldron. Kicking off two weeks of Olympics coverage that will need to cover the spectacle without being blinded by the gorgeous lights.

(MORE: Day 2 at the Sochi Games: From women’s snowboard slopestyle to men’s skiathlon)

TIME olympics

Russian TV Covers Up Opening Ceremony Ring Malfunction

Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony
In a combo of frame grabs taken from Russian television, five snowflakes float together in Fisht Stadium during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014 AP

Russian state television cut to footage from rehearsal to hide a malfunction

Russian state television aired a doctored version of the Sochi Olympic Opening Ceremonies on Friday, the Associated Press reports. In the Russian version of the event, five floating snowflakes turned into the Olympic rings before bursting into flames. But in reality, only four of the five rings materialized during the Opening Ceremonies.

(MORE: Sochi Winter Olympics’ Opening Ceremony in Pictures)

The five rings were supposed to join together and then turn into fireworks. But one of the snowflakes never transformed into a ring, and the pyrotechnics never happened. Russian state television cut away to rehearsal footage when the fifth ring got stuck, according to producers of the show.

The producers maintain that it was critical to preserve the Olympic ring imagery, even if it meant showing fake footage. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly emphasized the importance of showcasing Russia flawlessly to the world during the Olympics.

NBC, which is airing the Opening Ceremonies later tonight, said in a statement, “We will show things as they happened tonight.” And it stuck to its promise by showing the glitch, which barely marred an otherwise spectacular opening ceremony.

[AP]

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See Photos of the Opening Ceremony Before You Can See Them on TV

Highlights from the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics

TIME olympics

RECAP: Sochi’s Opening Ceremony

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Opening Ceremony
Performers with balloons representing St. Basil's cathedral. Clive Mason / Getty Images

Three-hour opening ceremony ended with the lighting of the cauldron

The Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics concluded in Sochi, Russia with a vivid display of fireworks and two legendary Russian ex-Olympians lighting the cauldron. The spectacle may not remove the problems that clouded the build-up to the tournament: political controversies, terrorism fears and concerns over the venue’s preparedness remain. The Russians so far have responded with glum defiance; others still question the morality of holding the Games at this Black Sea resort. But that all now takes a backseat as the Games begin. Below is TIME’s live coverage of the glittering event.


1:55 p.m. | The cauldron at Sochi has been lit.

Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony

Darron Cummings / AP

The Olympic Cauldron is lit during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, on Feb. 7.


1:54 p.m. | The other ex-Olympian who lit the flame was Vladislav Tretiak, the legendary goaltender for the Soviet Union who is considered perhaps the best ever to play his position. He never played in the NHL, but did have an unfortunate turn in the famous “Miracle on Ice” hockey game.


1:52 p.m.


1:51 p.m.


1:42 p.m.

Actors perform "Swan Lake" during the opening ceremony.

David J. Phillip / AP

Actors perform “Swan Lake” during the opening ceremony.


1:37 p.m.


1:29 p.m. | Russian President Vladimir Putin: briefly opens the Winter Olympics: “I pronounce these Games open.”


1:26 p.m. | Yep, that’s Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s Prime Minister, sleeping during the Opening Ceremony:


1:17 p.m.

Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony

Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Artists perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, on Feb. 7, 2014.


1:14 p.m.

TIME’s correspondent in Sochi sums up the historical gloss we just watched at the Opening Ceremony:


1:12 p.m.

Opening Ceremony

HOW HWEE YOUNG / EPA

Lubov, the so-called ‘Hero Girl,’ is lifted up on strings at the start of the Opening Ceremony.

Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony

Mark Humphrey / AP

Artists perform during the opening ceremony.


1:08 p.m.


1:06 p.m.


1:02 p.m.


12:59 p.m.


12:58 p.m.

Performers are seen during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics

Jim Young / Reuters

Performers are seen during the opening ceremony.


12:57 p.m.


12:51 p.m.


12:50 p.m. | Reports have surfaced that a flight from Ukraine bound for Istanbul was grounded and searched by Turkish security forces after a passenger claimed a bomb was aboard the aircraft. The alleged bomber reportedly tried to divert the flight to Sochi.


12:47 p.m.


12:43 p.m. | So far in Sochi’s grand-narration of Russian history, we’ve seen flying horses, ancient Greeks and Vikings. But no mention yet of the Circassians— the people indigenous to Sochi forced into exile in the 19th century. — Ishaan Tharoor

Long before the punk-rock group Pussy Riot or global gay-rights activists sought a boycott of the Olympics, a forgotten community clamored loudly against the events in Sochi. The Circassians, whose history of dispossession and exile Umarov opportunistically invoked, are a scattered, largely Muslim people native to the Caucasus, now found mostly outside of Russia in Turkey and parts of the Middle East. Their original homeland stretches from the eastern rim of the Black Sea — where Sochi sits — to the rugged western highlands of the Caucasus, but few of its indigenous inhabitants remain there.


12:40 p.m.


12:38 p.m.

Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony

David J. Phillip / AP

The Olympic mascots are seen during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, on Feb. 7, 2014.


12:34 p.m. | A video montage charting Russia’s origins and epic history just ended. It’s followed by imagery of the symbolic Russian troika, a three horse-drawn chariot:


12:29 p.m.


12:25 p.m.


12:24 p.m. | Russian pop duo t.A.T.u. just played Team Russia into the procession, which may seem like an odd choice: the two found success in the early 2000s with the single ‘All the Things She Said,’ the video of which showed the girls wearing school uniforms and kissing in the rain.


12:23 p.m.


12:22 p.m. | Not so ‘Cool Runnings': The Jamaican bobsled team just marched. They had to raise money on the Internet to make it to Sochi.


12:19 p.m. | An overhead shot of Team America marching in the procession:

Athletes from the United States wave to spectators as they arrive.

Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Athletes from the United States wave to spectators as they arrive.


12:16 p.m. Team Ukraine is marching in Fischt Stadium. The two countries have seen closer ties since Ukraine’s President snubbed a trade and association deal with the European Union in November to instead pivot toward Russia. Since then, violent clashes have rocked the capital Kiev.


12:14 p.m. | The Boston Bruins’ giant defenseman Zdeno Chara led out Team Slovakia:


12:09 p.m. | The American Olympians have arrived and are marching:

[https://twitter.com/Sochi2014/status/431837563108986880]


12:08 p.m.


12:06 p.m. | Here’s the reason why India’s three contestants marched under the Olympic flag and not that of their nation:

The IOC gave India until February 7 to vote in new, untainted leadership, but India’s Olympic Association scheduled a vote on February 9, two days after the opening ceremony. As a result, India’s athletes will have to parade as “independents” under a generic Olympic flag.


12:02 p.m.


11:59 a.m. | Interesting seating arrangement!


11:56 a.m. | If you’re tracking the politics of the ceremony so far, TIME counts a very robust Sochi cheer for Venezuela, whose government enjoys thumbing its nose at the U.S. Deathly silence when the Georgian team marched. Next door to Sochi, Georgia fought a war with Russia half a decade ago and riles the leadership in Moscow. — Ishaan Tharoor


11:55 a.m.


11:52 a.m.


11:49 a.m. | A member of Austria’s Olympic team fell during the procession

OLY-2014-OPENING-CEREMONY-DELEGATION

ANDREJ ISAKOVIC / AFP / Getty Images

A member of Austria’s delegation lies on the ground after falling during the Opening Ceremony on Feb. 7, 2014 in Sochi.


11:42 a.m.


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11:40 a.m.

The athletes of each nation are marching out now in procession. TIME’s Simon Shuster describes the scene: “The athletes start marching out onto the stage as a large ring of people in what look to be marshmallow suits clap and do a little two-step dance, swaying back and forth. Not quite the Beijing opening ceremony, but at least they are more or less synchronized. Which is cool.”


11:25 a.m. | Wardrobe malfunction?


11:23 a.m. | We’re being taken on a tour of Russia’s time zones. Does it really need nine of them? We looked at the issue last month:

In 2010, Moscow trimmed the number of zones down to nine (some experts think just four would suffice), but considerable quirks remain: for example, though Russia’s Asiatic port of Vladivostok sits clearly to the west of Japan, the time there is two hours ahead of Tokyo.


11:20 a.m. | Turkish Olympians pose with an official Sochi mascot


11:05 a.m.


11:00 a.m. | The Opening Ceremony has begun.

OLY-2014-OPENING-CEREMONY

Damien Meyer / AFP / Getty Images

A military choir performs during the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics at the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, Russia, on Feb. 7.


One hour before the Opening Ceremony began, TIME’s Simon Shuster recounted the lead-up. Follow him on Twitter @shustry for more:

19:15 One hour to go till the opening ceremony. The announcer calls in the hosts into the stadium, Ivan Urgant and Yana Churikova, who ride out, somewhat anticlimactically, in a golf cart. No disco lights or anything.

Churikova goes all in: “Welcome to the center of the universe!” I guess Russia was never really known for modesty.

19:17: They hop back into their golf cart and ride back off stage. A Russian pop song comes on.

19:20 The golf cart’s back, running laps around the stage with a news camera in toe. Apropos of nothing, a recording starts to play of the words “Welcome to Sochi” in about a dozen different languages. (Or so I assume from the languages I understand.)

Just a few minutes in, and Urgant attempts his first joke. “The people of Sochi are really unique,” he says. “They speak all the languages of the world. But only two phrases. “Welcome,” and, “Sorry, I don’t have any change.” Falls a bit flat. In the English translation, not clear if he’s talking about panhandlers or check-out clerks at the liquor store.

19:24. So then. Nothing to kill an awkward moment like a Queen song, especially one song with a Russian accent. “We are the Champions!”

19:27 Urgant: “Now we’re going to reveal a secret of the opening ceremony. The hero is a little girl, and her name is Love.”

Wait, it gets cheesier.

“I’m overflowing with love right now,” Urgant blubbers. “Can I hug you?” Yana accepts. “Cameraman, can I hug you?” The cameraman accepts.

Then it gets weird.

You know the kissing game they do at the ballpark with the jumbotron? Right. Usually they only zoom in on couples in the stands. Not in Russia.

“Hugs!” Urgant shouts. “Hug everyone!” The camera pans around to the press box. Confusion descends. “Everyone hug your neighbor! You, lonely cameraman, yes, you! Hug the person next to you!” The poor guy concedes.

19:30 Rough transition back to song. Churikova: “There is a Russian tradition that when you hear this song you have to hug someone.” I grew up in Russia and I’m pretty sure there is no such tradition. Anyway, the song was nice.

19:36. Cue the golf cart. Urgant: “Now let me tell you how everyone can become a part of these Games.” Well, at least everyone in the stadium. Urgant pulls a trick from Opera Winfrey’s hat. Everyone is told to reach under their seat and get a light-emitting medal to put around their necks. They all start flickering the Russian tricolor, which looks pretty awesome. For some reason, Churikova feels the need to add, “Don’t worry [the medals] are absolutely harmless for your health.”

TIME olympics

Olympic Critics Turn Sochi’s Opening Gala Into a Pity Party

The VIP bash for Russia's elite was meant to be fabulous but the mood was sour

On Thursday night, the eve of the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, a selection of Russia’s rich and famous got together for the Games’ unofficial opening – a gala in the city’s renovated sea port, which overlooks a harbor full of yachts and, a little further out to sea, navy patrol boats. It was, in many ways, a distinctly Russian party. Foreigners were conspicuously few in number. The tables creaked with mayonnaise-laden salads, herring, vodka and the dish most typical of New Russian cuisine – the sushi roll. But the usual frivolity of the Moscow beau monde had clearly been soured by all the bad press the Sochi Olympics have already been garnering. As the night wore on, it gave the chatter near the bar a tone of mutual commiseration, making it feel less like a ball than an extravagant pity party.

“Listen, we tried,” pouted Iosif Kobzon, the Russian crooner-turned-politician who often gets compared to Frank Sinatra. “We never promised to be the best at everything. We only promised to pour our hearts into these Games. And we have!”

But from all the flak these Olympics are taking from the Western press and Russian dissidents, you might not get that impression. Reports of unfinished hotels, detachable door handles, banned yogurt, unusual toilet arrangements, missing floors and other glaring Olympic oversights have dominated global coverage in the lead-up to the Games, and for the Russians who have spent the last few years touting their awesomeness, that seemed to hurt.

“Of course it hurts,” says Andrei Malakhov, the effervescent host of Russia’s most popular talk show, who came to the party in a bright red Olympic jumpsuit. “What do the Americans have to complain about? I saw their hotels. Every masseuse is fluttering around them, not even making time for me! And still all they see is the horrible stuff. Yes, it exists. But this is supposed to be a party.”

And even copious amounts of alcohol couldn’t get this one going. Pouring it up at last night’s gala was the vodka-and-banking billionaire Roustam Tariko, who tried to keep an uncharacteristically low profile. “Vodka and sport don’t make such a good pair,” he told me by the bar. “So we try to stay behind the scenes.”

To wit, his VIP lounge was kept hidden from a lot of the guests at Thursday’s party, tucked behind two layers of security guards in a far wing of the sea port. On the red velvet couches inside, Russian movie stars and TV personalities sipped brandy beside their waifish model wives, glancing now and then at the walls full of socialist realist paintings of Russia’s last Olympics, the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. Yet even when the band started playing La Bamba, none of them got up to dance. “Maybe by midnight someone’ll get drunk,” remarked a bored photographer. It never happened.

The party was reserved, certainly by Russian standards. Toward midnight, the Kremlin officials and lawmakers poured out of the small dining room to which they had secluded themselves for most of the night, helped their wives into their mink coats and made their way to the exit. Near the door, Kobzon, the crooner, stopped to reminisce with a few of the older statesmen about the Games of 1980, which was a low-point for the Olympic spirit.

The Winter Games were held that February in Lake Placid, New York, and overall, the Soviet Union handed the U.S. a beating, taking home 10 gold medals and topping the winners’ table. But that was also the year of the so-called Miracle on Ice, when the American hockey team beat out the Soviets by one goal in the final period. “Oh, how we wept after that game,” recalls Kobzon, who was part of the Soviet delegation to Lake Placid. A few months later, the weeping turned to anger when the U.S. led an international boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow. Though it was meant as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that year, the snub also tarnished the Olympic tradition of letting sport rise above the bad blood of the Cold War.

It was an experience no one at the Sochi opening party wanted to repeat, not even the few icons of the Russian opposition who were invited. Andrey Makarevich, Russia’s most famous rock musician, wrote many of the anthems of the Soviet dissident movement, and he still likes to lampoon the Kremlin in some of his lyrics today. But on Thursday, he also put on the garish Olympic uniform of Team Russia and mingled with the politicians. “For these two weeks, you have to call a truce,” he told me in the vodka room. “We have to pause all the politics and let the Games be a celebration. When it’s over, we can go back to criticizing each other.” Maybe after Friday night, when the official opening ceremony will try to win over the world, some of Sochi’s critics will start to agree.

TIME olympics

@SochiProblems Is Way More Popular Than the Official Sochi Account on Twitter

@sochiproblems
A Twitter account joking about the problems in Sochi is gaining sudden popularity Twitter

Let's face it, hearing about Sochi's screw-ups is way more fun

After only three days online and 148 tweets, an unofficial Twitter account documenting the hassles and failings of the Sochi games has succeeded in attracting more followers than the official Winter Olympics account.

The official @Sochi2014, is being followed by 133,000 people, notably less than @SochiProblems‘ more than 178,000 followers (who have grown rapidly from the 100,000 on Thursday night).

While @Sochi2014 displays pictures of arriving athletes, the Olympic torch bearers and the competition facilities, the unofficial account has been busy sharing and retweeting information and jokes about unfinished construction, gross hotel rooms and more serious issues such as Russia’s gay rights record.

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What NBC Won’t Tell You About the Opening Ceremonies

Visitors walk inside the Olympic Park prior to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics on February 6, 2014.
Visitors walk inside the Olympic Park prior to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics on February 6, 2014. Pascal Le Segretain—Getty Images

A geopolitical guide to the Parade of Nations at the Sochi Winter Games

For more on the geopolitics of the Olympics, follow the author on Twitter @ianbremmer and @eurasiagroup where he will be live-tweeting the Opening Ceremonies.

Here in the United States, the Parade of Nations at the Sochi Olympic Opening Ceremonies will be shown by NBC broadcasters who will narrate the long march of more than 80 countries with innocuous facts. Did you know the last name of Icelanders is derived from their father’s first name?How about that Mexico’s only competing athlete is…a 55-year-old of royal German descent who moonlights as a pop singer?

What if the flag-waving event, which was watched by an estimated 1 billion people when the Olympics last convened in London, was treated not as “an entertainment spectacle,” as NBC has publicly promised, but as something that showed the actual relationships between these nations as they parade before the world?

Here’s how the procession might look if the countries were grouped by the most geopolitically important—and scandalous—issues that face the world today. Just keep these political realities in mind as the flag bearers wave, Putin smiles, and Bob Costas sticks to the script (for the most part…).

The pariahs

After years of tightening sanctions that have suffocated its economy, perhaps Iran won’t be an outcast of the international community for much longer. The world’s biggest make-or-break geopolitical moment on the horizon is the outcome of Iranian nuclear negotiations. The nuclear program’s progress, sanctions’ success, and the election of President Hassan Rouhani have dramatically upped the probability of a deal (I would definitely peg it at better than even odds). But bear in mind, there will be risks along the way, and if the deal falls apart, the risk of military action will rise. While some might be more inclined towards an Iranian Olympic victory in this auspicious political climate, that won’t be true of Israel, who will be going head-to-head with Iran in alpine skiing.

Venezuela will also make an alpine skiing appearance: it is sending one competitor to Sochi this year. Violence in Venezuela is at appalling levels, with nearly 25,000 homicides in 2013 (although the government denies this figure). To put that in perspective, when Venezuela’s sole Olympian returns home, he is more than 150x more likely to be murdered than he would be in the United States (a nation with one of the highest homicide rates among developed countries).

Argentina is fast becoming an economic pariah as global investors brace for the worst. The country’s reserves of hard currencies fell 30% last year, and the currency has been in a tailspin of late. As the Argentine Peso has weakened, the government continues to tighten restrictions on transactions using foreign currency. Items purchased online from websites like Amazon need to be picked up at the local customs office, where waits often run 3 or 4 hours—and they are taxed 50%. Should an Argentine win a medal, good luck getting it past customs…

The locals

As I wrote in a recent piece for Time, the situation in Ukraine is deteriorating—with serious potential impact for Russia and the Winter Games. Part of the issue derives from Ukraine’s split personality between Europe and Russia. About one-sixth of citizens are ethnic Ukrainians who speak Russian as their first language rather than Ukrainian. Another one-sixth are ethnic Russians who speak Russian. So how will Ukraine’s Olympic delegation proceed? Will there be any signs of support for the Ukrainian opposition? Will Russia try and muzzle them from interviews? It’s an important space to watch.

As Russia tries to pull Ukraine deeper into its orbit, there are other countries in its cross-hairs. Belarus and Kazakhstan are already members of the Russia-led Customs Union. If Putin could realize his dream of building out the Eurasian Union to include more of the former Soviet UnionArmenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would be early candidates for this formalized security-economic integration framework—just imagine what it could do for Russia’s Olympic medal count.

The rising powers

The international sporting spotlight will soon shift to Brazil as it hosts the World Cup this summer (and the 2016 Olympics soon after). Brazil is sending 13 athletes to Sochi—that’s a record-high for the snowless country. Indeed, Brazil’s ambitions on the international stage are growing along with the prosperity of its populace: more than half of Brazil’s population is now middle class. But rising fortunes come with rising expectations, and as last year’s massive-scale protests showed, public frustration can quickly send people into the streets. The original spark? A 9-cent bus fare hike in Sao Paolo.

Recently, Turkey has been no stranger to protests either. But here the outlook is sufficiently bleak that any aspirations as a rising power will have to be put on hold. Turkey has to contend with Syria’s civil war just across the border, and heightened political uncertainty at home: Prime Minister Erdogan’s bellicose behavior toward any opposition isn’t doing the country any favors. He will be in attendance at Sochi. Turkish journalists may want to keep any dissenting views to themselves: in 2013, more imprisoned journalists were identified in Turkey than in any other country in the world

The key economies

The United States’ soft power (and star power) will be on full display in Sochi, with a huge roster of participating athletes and the quintessential American corporations sponsoring the Games. But one of the biggest political risks in the world today is driven by the United States’ international presence (or lack thereof). An increasingly risk-averse and poorly defined US role in the world has allies wondering whether Washington is disengaging abroad. Secretary of State John Kerry recently declared, “I can’t think of a single place in the world where we’re retreating, not one.” Perhaps he should have brainstormed with President Obama, who billed withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan as one of his principal foreign policy achievements in his State of the Union address last month.

In the Eurozone, three ‘core’ countries have cracked the top 10 in all-time gold medals: Germany (4th), Austria (5th), and Finland (9th). No periphery state has accomplished this feat. (Of course, their climates may be less accommodating, and Italy is knocking at the door at #11th…but it’s still one notch below East Germany, which ceased to be a country over 20 years ago). Unfortunately, when it comes to the health of their economies and employment rates, we see a similar imbalance. Germany’s 2013 current account surplus of $260 billion was the largest in the world, breaking its own record high. Meanwhile, periphery countries have struggled with painful austerity measures to try and strengthen their budgets and restore competitiveness. The result? Youth unemployment in Germany (8%) is a fraction of the levels seen in Italy (38%), Portugal (40%), Spain (55%) and Greece (58%). In a recent Pew poll, 75% of Germans had an optimistic economic outlook. Compare that with 1% in Greece.

While China recently surged past Japan to become the world’s second largest economy, its Winter Olympic delegation doesn’t yet reflect that reality. Japan’s delegation is 113 strong—almost 60% of them women, which is uncharacteristic for a country ranked 105th out of 136 in a recent Global Gender Gap Report—whereas China has 65 athletes. On the global stage, China’s rise is alarming the neighbors. When you add in the historic bad blood between Beijing and Tokyo as well as recent escalations, the product is the world’s most dangerous bilateral geopolitical conflict. There has even been a Harry Potter component to the tensions, with each country accusing the other of being the region’s ‘Voldemort.’ Both countries’ leaders will be present in Sochi; suffice it to say they will avoid each other…even as they both meet with Putin.

The noticeably absent

While it may come as no surprise given its historical tensions with Russia, Georgia is not sending a delegation in protest (although they will have four athletes in attendance). But even as a no-show, Georgia can’t escape events in Sochi—after all, the Games are taking place on their front porch—and that’s not all they’re protesting. For the duration of the Olympics, Russia has extended its security perimeter into territory it contests with Georgia. In fact, Russia invaded its tiny neighbor over similar territorial disputes during the 2008 Olympics.

North Korea has failed to qualify for the Winter Games for the first time in 12 years. But surely Pyongyang will be represented in the Summer Olympics, given Dennis Rodman’s help with their basketball program…

India will not join the Parade of Nations because it has been suspended after it refused to prohibit corruption-tainted officials from running for elections. But the IOA (Independent Olympic Athletes) is filled with Indian athletes. Maybe it’s fitting that in a country of 1.2 billion people with 18 official languages and a messy democracy, the formal delegation fell through—but the athletes made it to Sochi nonetheless.
And last but not least, many Western world leaders are snubbing the games as well. It seems French President Francois Hollande has a more pressing affair to attend.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World. For more on the geopolitics of the Olympics, follow him on Twitter @ianbremmer and @eurasiagroup where he will be live-tweeting the Opening Ceremonies.

TIME olympics

Meet The American Shaun White Screwed Over

White said the course was too dangerous, but critics aren't buying it

At the Olympics, Shaun White could do no wrong. He dominates. He charms. And as a reward, he’s made millions, and become one of the most marketable American athletes in any sport. He’s had the American Express commercial, the Target clothing line. For a snowboarder, that’s rare air.

But in Sochi, White has screwed up. His explanation for pulling out of the slopestyle event — the injury risk was too great, potentially damaging chances in his signature event, the halfpipe — seems mighty fishy. It seems White knew he wasn’t going to win gold in slopestyle. He wasn’t the clear favorite coming in. So he stepped aside the day before the competition, when he could have done so weeks ago, freeing up a spot for another American. Preventing a teammate from achieving his dream is one of the worst Olympic sins.

Sure, the Sochi slopestyle course was more dangerous than everyone expected. Several athletes got hurt during training: White himself jammed a wrist. Still, longtime White watchers aren’t buying his carefully crafted excuse. Alyssa Roenigk of ESPN.com, a veteran action sports journalist, wrote:

I remember White once telling me his favorite thing is to show up to a halfpipe or slopestyle competition when the weather is bad, or the pipe is cut poorly, or everyone is complaining about the course — because that’s when he shines. Everyone has to ride the same course and drop into the same pipe, and he knows he is the best rider on any day, no matter the conditions. He said he smiles knowing he is in a better place mentally than everyone else. In his mind, in those moments, he has already won.

Which makes it hard to believe White is pulling out of slopestyle because he is fearful of the course.

Teammates and competitors have taken him to task. “There was a lot of guys that I trained pretty hard with sitting in that fifth spot,” American slopestyle boarder Charles (Chas) Guldemond said on Thursday, via the Wall Street Journal. (Four Americans made the slopestyle team: White, Guldemond, Sage Kotsenburg, and Ryan Stassel. The semifinals and finals are on Saturday). “It’s pretty unfortunate that they missed their opportunity to come to the Games. So that was a pretty big blow.” Guldemond said he was surprised White pulled out so late. “I knew it was coming sometime this year.” When asked why he believe that, Guldemond answered: “No comment.”

Translation: White screwed another rider over.

That rider, most likely, was Brandon Davis. Kyle Mack, 15, was fifth in the US qualifying, but the United States Ski and Snowboard Association told the New York Times that Mack didn’t have enough international points to qualify for the Olympics. (That didn’t stop Mack from sharing his bitterness. “Love how shaun drops out of the Olympics,” he wrote on Twitter. “That could have been my spot.”) Davis was next in the standings. His spot was not guaranteed if White pulled out earlier. But Davis was a good bet to replace him.

“It just kind of sucks,” says Davis, 18, from his home in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. “I was surprised to even have a chance to qualify for the Olympic team. Then I started working so hard, I was going to the gym and snowboarding as much as I could. And going to all these contests. It’s not necessarily an easy process. It’s kind of stressful. Then to come in fifth and then realize I was one of the guys close to having a spot, and then Shaun goes out there and drops out, it’s kind of a bummer.”

“I should be there, but Shaun decided he didn’t want to do it,” says Davis. “It’s not a big deal for him. But for most people, the Olympics is a whole other level. It could have kicked started my career a bit, and gotten the ball rolling. But Shaun kind of dropped out like it’s nothing.”

Davis also isn’t buying White’s logic. He’s convinced White pulled out because he didn’t think he’d win. “If he was really hurt or really had issues, he wouldn’t be doing the halfpipe,” says Davis. (The halfpipe is on Tuesday). “If every other guy out there is doing it, and Shaun is truly the best in the world, he would be able to pull it off. If I was there, I’m only a 18-year-old guy, I’m sure I can manage it. If I’m just me, and he’s Shaun White, he can’t handle it? That’s kind of unbelievable.”

Davis does have some sympathy for White. “I do kind of feel bad for him,” he says. “Because everyone, on my Facebook and social media, has been blowing up the last few days. Shaun White, I hate this guy, I hate him for this, he’s dumb for this. I do feel bad for him in the sense, he’s getting so much backlash for what he’s doing. I don’t believe he deserves it that harsh … The whole snowboarding community doesn’t really like Shaun. But ultimately, he is the face of our sport, there’s not point in hating on him so hard.”

“He’s the hardest working guy in our sport. And he certainly deserves respect.”

Many snowboarders think White is aloof. “Most of the snowboarding community is friends with one another,” Davis says. “He’s apart from everyone. He’s the lone wolf. When he goes out there for a contest, he goes out there to win. He trains hard for it and all these things. Other snowboarders pretend ‘oh, we don’t need to win. We’re all buddies.’ While Shaun is a little bit different, he just gets a lot of hatefulness for that.” Davis, however, does look up to White. “I mean, he is the best at what he does,” Davis says. “A lot of people, honestly, would almost hate on me for looking up to Shaun.”

Although he’ll have to watch the competition from California, Davis says he’s holding up well. “I was bummed about the Olympic thing for a little while,” says Davis. “But then I started relaxing.” Turns out, an 18-year-old snowboarder can teach us all about perspective. “I’m not at the Olympics,” Davis says. “I could not be having food. It’s a quality problem to have, that’s for sure.”

TIME olympics

Google Doodle Upholds Gay Rights Ahead of Sochi Olympics

And it quotes the Olympic Charter to remind us all that athletes must compete "without discrimination of any kind"

Sochi Russia Olympics Google Doodle

Google

Thursday’s Google Doodle is a not-so-subtle pre-Olympics shot at Russia’s less-than-stellar record on gay rights. The doodle, which is also featured on Google’s .ru Russia address, features a series of winter athletes set in rainbow colors, with a pointed quote from the Olympic Charter below Google’s search bar. Clicking the doodle itself also points users to the Olympic Charter.

Here’s the quote on Google’s landing page:

“The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” –Olympic Charter

Russia has been heavily criticized for its stance on gay rights leading up to the Sochi Winter Olympics.

MORE: Sochi 2014: Snowboarding, Skiing and Skating Ring in the Games

Earlier on Thursday, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon discussed “attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people” in Russia, saying that “we must oppose the arrests, imprisonments and discriminatory restrictions they face.”

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