The world will fix its eyes on Sochi, Russia, in February 2014 for the Olympic Winter Games, which will be held in two distinctly different, but notably scenic areas near the Black Sea resort.
The Olympics return to the region for the first time since 1980, when the Soviet Union hosted the Summer Games in Moscow. Those Games may be best remembered because of the U.S.-led boycott that kept about 50 countries out of competition. The boycott, introduced by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, followed the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan seven months before the Opening Ceremony. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has re-emerged as a world power and the Olympics are a chance for the world to see a "new Russia," the host city's mayor told Time magazine.
A city of about 343,000 people, Sochi is situated on the eastern side of the Black Sea and in the southwestern corner of Russia. It borders Georgia to the southeast. Directly south across the Black Sea is Turkey; across the sea to the west are Bulgaria and Romania. Ukraine borders the northern portion of the Black Sea.
Sochi organizers are calling the event "the most compact Winter Games in the history of the Olympic Movement." With two hubs of activity – the mountain cluster and the coastal cluster – travel time between venues within each cluster will be very short. A new train service will make the trip between the two clusters in less than 30 minutes.
At the coast, where indoor sports such as figure skating, hockey and curling will be contested, Sochi has a humid subtropical climate – the average high temperature in February is about 50 degrees, with a low of just under 40 degrees. The mountain cluster will host skiing and snowboarding as well as the Nordic and sliding sports, and although it's colder at the higher elevations, organizers will have 250,000 cubic meters of snow stored underground in case the weather doesn't cooperate.
Competition kicks off with action in figure skating, snowboarding and freestyle skiing on Thursday, Feb. 6, ahead of the Opening Ceremony on Friday, Feb. 7. The Games end on Feb. 23 and are followed by the Paralympic Games.
For the United States, Sochi represents a chance to build on recent Winter Olympic success. The U.S. has shown great improvement since winning no more than 13 medals at any of the three Games in the 1990s. The Americans finished second in the medal standings at the 2002 and 2006 Games with hauls of 34 and 25 medals; in 2010, the U.S. topped the standings with a record 37. The U.S. has 253 medals in Winter Olympic history, second behind Norway's 303.
All-Time Winter Standings
Country Gold Silver Bronze Total
Norway 107 106 90 303
United States 87 95 71 253
Unified Team 87 63 67 217
Germany 78 78 53 209
Austria 55 70 76 201
Continuing that success could prove to be difficult for the Americans in 2014 as Russia will be under intense pressure to climb back up the medal chart. Russia's Vancouver performance - 15 total medals, only three of them gold - was considered a significant disappointment and was widely criticized by Russian leaders.
There will many more chances for medals, as 12 events will debut across six sports in Sochi:
figure skating - team event
snowboarding- men's and women's slopestyle; men's and women's parallel special slalom
freestyle skiing - men's and women's slopestyle; men's and women's halfpipe
ski jumping - women's normal hill
biathlon - mixed relay
luge - team relay
It's too early to know for sure which athletes will compete in Sochi, but some key names to watch are Lindsey Vonn (United States, Alpine skiing), Shaun White (United States, snowboarding), Yuna Kim (South Korea, figure skating) and Yevgeny Plushenko (Russia, figure skating). (Source: NBC)