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 closeup

Pictures of the Week: January 31 – February 7

From the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi and mourning the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman to fighting horses in China and the world's largest baby Jesus, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

From the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi and mourning the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman to fighting horses in China and the world’s largest baby Jesus, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

TIME photo essay

Weird, Wonderful Sochi: Inside Russia's Own Palm Beach

TIME contract photographer Yuri Kozyrev takes us inside the weird, wonderful world of Sochi, which was known in Soviet times as Russia's version of Palm Beach.

The locals in Sochi still use the old Soviet slang – dikari, which means, “the savages” – to describe the tourists who arrive from colder parts of Russia, rent an apartment near the Black Sea coast and spend a week letting the sun wash their pallor away. The word is a reflection of the privileged status (some would say snobbery) that once set the people of Sochi apart from the rest of the toiling masses of the Soviet Union. Their town was the closest thing in the USSR to Monte Carlo or Palm Beach. The markets were packed with exotic fruit. The summer lasted nine months of the year. And the locals knew they lived in the Soviet version of paradise.

To his incalculable luck, Yuri Kozyrev, TIME’s contract photographer, was one of them. His grandparents owned an apartment in the center of Sochi, within view of the sea port’s elegant spire, and he would visit them each year between May and October starting from the age of three.

His grandmother Vera was a curator at a local museum. His grandfather Boris repaired watches in a little workshop and, in his abundant leisure time, rode around on his motorbike and wrote books about history and philosophy. Their balcony looked out over pomegranate and persimmon trees, fruits as rare to the average Soviet as a coconut is to an Eskimo. They bloomed all summer long.

In the early 1990s, not long before he went to photograph the first war in Chechnya, Kozyrev stopped coming to Sochi. His grandparents had passed away just as the Soviet Union collapsed, and the family lost their apartment. So it was only in the last couple of years that he started returning to Sochi on assignment, photographing the preparations for the Winter Olympic Games, which the city will host from February 7 – 23.

What he found on his return was hard to recognize, a provincial town turned into a giant construction site, with hotels, stadiums and highways rising with fantastic speed. “It was all movement and light,” he says. “All of it was new.” On the Black Sea coast, the new Olympic village had been built right over marshlands, its stadiums resembling a convention of alien spaceships gathered from different galaxies.

Such spectacles in Kozyrev’s pictures come through with all their luminescent power. But so does his nostalgia for the town that they replaced. In many of the frames, the remnants of the old creep into the present day, but usually in the form of kitsch, while the new overwhelms with its scale and insistence.

During the first couple of trips, Kozyrev could not bring himself to visit his grandparents’ old apartment building. “I was too afraid,” he says. “I’d heard it was razed to make way for some Olympic construction and I couldn’t bare to see it.” In fact, the building still stood. Except the fruit trees were gone, and someone had decided to paint it pink.

Wherever he could find the remains of the old Sochi– its sanatoriums and its bazaars – Kozyrev sought them out, but they usually seemed anachronistic in the context of the Olympic boom, somehow out of place in their native environment. “The arrival of a new epoch will do that,” he says with a laugh.

Only once during his visits did he come across an image of the town as he remembers it. Sitting by the shore, he found an older couple from Siberia getting a spa treatment, their legs submerged in plastic tubs of water so that little fish could nibble on their feet. Grinning as he stopped to talk to them, he had to keep himself from shouting, dikari!


Yuri Kozyrev is a contract photographer for TIME and was named the 2011 Photographer of the Year in the Pictures of the Year International competition.

Simon Shuster is TIME’s Moscow correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @shustry.


TIME olympics

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

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

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.

TIME olympics

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

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.”

TIME olympics

Everything You Need to Know About The Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony

Fireworks are seen over the Fisht Olympic Stadium at the Olympic Park during the rehearsal of the opening ceremony in Sochi
Alexander Demianchuk / Reuters Fireworks over the Fisht Olympic Stadium at the Olympic Park during a rehearsal of the opening ceremony in Sochi, on Feb. 4, 2014.

What time it's on and what to watch out for

The Sochi Winter Olympics are set to get underway Thursday — but before the sporting events really start to get heated, there’s a another kind of spectacle to enjoy: The opening ceremony, a time-honored tradition of national pride wherein host countries very literally make a show of one-upping whichever nation held the previous Games.

What time is the opening ceremony?

The opening ceremony will actually happen Friday, Feb. 7 at 11 a.m. EST, but NBC decided it will delay airing the spectacle in the U.S. until 7:30 p.m. Weirdly, this is actually a day after the athletic competitions begin.

How can I watch?

If you’ve got a television, you’ll find the opening ceremony on your local NBC affiliate at 7:30 p.m EST. NBC is live-streaming every single Winter Olympics sporting event on its website and mobile apps, but alas, it’s not streaming the opening ceremony. Aereo, if it’s available in your area, provides an Internet-based option for those sans-TV. Otherwise, call up your local sports bar and see if they’re playing the ceremony.

What’s Russia got planned?

It’s hard to say exactly what’s hiding behind the Iron Curtain. There was a fireworks test this week, so we can safely expect some Putin-approved pyrotechnics. Daniel Ezralow, a Broadway choreographer famous for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, is leading a cast of about 80 professional dancers and hundreds of volunteers in a performance about “20th-century Russia,” he told People, so look out for performers with MAD dance moves, we guess.

Russia’s world-famous for its classical composers, and several top contemporaries are expected to play a role in the opening ceremony. Russian pop band t.A.T.u, two teenagers who semi-pretended to be lesbians and were briefly crazy-popular in the mid-2000s, is rumored to be playing, whatever such a thing might say about Russia’s treatment of gay people. No word on an appearance by Springfield, Missouri indie-pop rockers Somebody Still Loves You, Boris Yeltsin — but we’re crossing our пальцы.

What’s up with the Parade of Nations?

The Parade of Nations is one of the best known Olympic spectacles. It’s when all the athletes representing their respective countries in the Games get to walk around an arena decked out in patriotic colors while in alphabetical order by country name. That last part is very important — if a country leaves alphabetical order, it’s automatically disqualified from the Games. Or so I’m told.

This year there’s a twist: The countries will be introduced in alphabetical order according to their Russian spelling. Per Olympic tradition, Greece goes first, alphabet be damned. In Sochi, thanks to Cyrillic, Ireland is relieved of its typical role as an awkward buffer between Iran, Iraq and Israel. Russia, as the host nation, will go last.

MORE: Game On: Highlights From Day One

Who’s carrying the Stars and Stripes?

That’ll be 36-year old Todd Lodwick, a Nordic combined skier who’s been to the Olympics six times.

And the flame? What’s the deal?

Arguably the most important part of the opening ceremonies is the lighting of the official Olympic flame, which symbolizes Prometheus’ theft of fire from the Greek god Zeus (and the 2012 film Prometheus’ theft of my $12.75). Part of Olympics tradition is that the torch makes a relay trip around the world before it’s used to light the flame at the opening ceremonies. Before this year’s games, the Olympic torch (used to light the flame) went on its longest pre-Games relay in Olympic history, traveling to the North Pole, Europe’s highest mountain peak and the International Space Station. Sadly, one torchbearer died of a heart attack shortly after carrying the torch through a part of western Siberia.

A double-rumor-with-a-twist this year: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s supposed girlfriend, a former Olympics champion, is rumored to be lighting the Olympic flame this year. This Olympics has more rumors than Fleetwood Mac.

How long will this thing be?

Previous ceremonies have clocked in at around four hours, or about half the length of the average Lord of the Rings Director’s Cut.

Will this be as British as the 2012 opening ceremony?

Not even in the slightest. The opening ceremony for 2012’s Summer Olympics had a distinctly British flavor, with polite nods to British history, jokes about Queen Elizabeth and appearances by famous British rockers The Who. Russia’s show, while still largely under wraps, will be much more, well, Russian. Expect classical music, ballerinas and, who knows, maybe even bears.

Who’s Russia trying to beat?

China. China’s opening ceremony was outstanding.

TIME olympics

TSA Bans Carry-On Liquids on Flights to Russia

A passenger airliner arrives at Adler Airport ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics on January 31, 2014.
Robert Cianflone—Getty Images A passenger airliner arrives at Adler Airport ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics on January 31, 2014.

Threat of toothpaste explosives prompts curb on liquids

The Transportation Security Administration is temporarily banning travelers from bringing any liquid, gel or aerosol in their carry-on luggage on flights between the U.S. and Russia after a warning from the Department of Homeland Security that terrorists targeting the Olympic Games in Sochi might hide explosives in toothpaste or cosmetic tubes.

“As always our security posture, which at all times includes a number of measures both seen and unseen, will continue to respond and appropriately adapt to protect the American people from an ever evolving threat picture,” a DHS official said. “These measures include intelligence gathering and analysis, deployment of cutting edge technology, random canine team searches at airports, federal air marshals, federal flight deck officers, temporarily restricting certain items and more security measures both visible and invisible to the public.”

The rule applies for the next 30 days. Travelers can still bring the items in checked bags.

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

Russia banned liquids and gels from carry-ons one month ago as part of an effort to tighten security ahead of the Olympics, which has been the target of threats from Islamic militants in the region.

The opening ceremony of the Sochi Games is scheduled for Friday.

—with reporting by Zeke Miller

TIME olympics

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

The 2014 Winter Olympics were off to an early start—the opening ceremony is tomorrow—with qualifying runs for snowboard slopestyle, women's moguls and team figure skating.

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