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Kovacevic: Which way will Sochi surprise?

| Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

In five days, the Winter Olympics will begin filling the long, small slice of land squeezed between Sochi's mountains and the Russian coast of the Black Sea.

The next night, the five flaming rings of the Opening Ceremony will more festively get the Games going.

And on the final Sunday of February, if we're all so lucky that none of all this doom that has been forecast takes place, the magnificent sport of ice hockey will be blessed with a second Game for the Ages in as many Olympics. Maybe it'll be a modern-day Miracle for the U.S. Maybe another golden goal for Sidney Crosby. Maybe a titanic homecoming for Evgeni Malkin.

Beyond that?

Wow, good luck.

Looking ahead to the Sochi Games, which I'll proudly cover for the Trib as my fourth Olympics, I can't recall another with such an overbearing air of uncertainty beforehand, on and off the fields of competition. It feels as if it could range anywhere from triumph to tragedy, from fantastic to forgettable, from joyful to hate-filled.

Here are five facets that should prove pivotal:

Security concerns

Society has reached the point where the Olympics could be staged in Antarctica, with no humans there except Kate Upton and a couple of photographers, and it still would require billions of dollars and a massive military presence to secure the place.

Even so, Sochi will set the standard.

The Russians will have upwards of 50,000 security personnel plus tens of thousands of cameras and detectors and dogs, or triple the amount in urban, wide-open London two years ago. Organizers are calling Sochi “the safest place on Earth” and the city's perimeter the “Ring of Steel,” with air, sea and vehicular access cut off. Even once inside, I've been told by journalists already there, people are being randomly stopped to show papers.

If that sounds excessive, it shouldn't.

Chechnya, a region that has been waging a battle for independence for two decades — including terrorist attacks — is only 500 miles away. Threats from Chechen rebels and others in the North Caucasus region have been made to disrupt the Games. Already, suicide bombings on back-to-back December days killed 34 in the hub city of Volgograd 400 miles away.

Terrorism won't be the only security concern.

Russia's antigay laws have drawn scorn worldwide, and Sochi organizers are bracing for backlash. Demonstrations are expected, though they'll be forced into designated areas far from the events. Some athletes, too, have suggested they will find a way to speak out for gay rights. How Russian authorities react if any of that intensifies could define the Games.

Stars lacking

Crosby, Malkin and the rest of the world's best hockey players will be on hand, but their fame is born and bred in the NHL. They aren't Olympians in the purest sense.

So who will be biggest of that brand?

Start with who won't: Lindsey Vonn, who would have been the star of NBC's coverage, gave in to her damaged knee last month and had surgery that will keep her off skis until next year. Evan Lysacek, a surprise gold medalist in Vancouver who was poised to join Brian Boitano and Todd Eldredge as America's only three-time male Olympians in figure skating, was felled last month by a bum hip. Apolo Anton Ohno, the goateed giant of the short track, will wear an NBC headset.

Even if all three had been at Sochi, these Olympics still wouldn't have had a Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt on the U.S. or international fronts, save perhaps the brilliant South Korean figure skater Yuna Kim.

There will be a handful of familiar U.S. faces: Shaun White's 27 and all neatly shorn, but he's still king of the halfpipe. Shani Davis will be speedskating toward a record third gold in the 1,000 meters. J.R. Celski hopes to succeed Ohno on the short track by improving on his Vancouver bronze. Steven Holcomb aims to drive the “Night Train” bobsled to more glory. Ted Ligety and Julia Mancuso — even 36-year-old Bode Miller in his fifth Games — look to pick up Vonn's slack on the slopes.

Maybe someone fresh such as 18-year-old skier Mikaela Shiffrin will rise up. She'll get the hype, but she has to deliver.

Sochi pride

Sochi is to Russia as Cancun is to Mexico: It's all tourism and barely reflective of the rest. It stretches for a linear 90 miles of Black Sea coast, is crammed with hotels and, despite all that space, is home to about a Pittsburgh-sized population of 350,000.

There's ample historical architecture and other picturesque elements in the urban core. And yet, as Sasha Ryabov, a Russian journalist who covers the Penguins in Pittsburgh, was telling me: “It's a beautiful city, but it's not Red Square.”

The perception of any Olympics is built, in part, on the image projected to the world. In that regard, Sochi is bound to be a hit. But there's more to the goal of the organizers and Russia as a whole. Vladimir Putin, Russia's president and the authoritarian push behind these Games, explained in a recent interview: “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, after the tough and bloody events in the Caucasus, the society was in a pitiful, pessimistic state. We need to shake that off.”

That said, the Russians, as is their wont, aren't about to cater or kowtow. English and French are the official languages of the Olympics and, as such, are usually stressed by organizers. Not in Sochi. Most literature and communications have been in Russian or in mangled English.

When in Russia, do as the Russians.

Skyrocketing cost

The one accusation no one could make of the Russians is that they're a cheap date.

Putin won the Olympic bid in 2007 while pledging to turn Sochi into a “world-class resort” and promising to show “we are not afraid of big projects.” But since then, phenomenal cost overruns — and, per reports, exorbitant kickbacks that are part of Russia's perpetually corrupt economy — have raised the price estimate to $51 billion.

That's right, with a B.

If that figure holds, it would be the most expensive Olympics, roughly $10 billion more than Beijing's Summer Games and $36 million more than London's. The new $8.7 billion railway and station through Sochi by itself dwarfs the cost of the Vancouver Games.

The plus to Sochi's price is that the venues are breathtaking in scope and imagination, a far cry from the bland, white temporary structures of London or the use of existing, worn buildings in Vancouver. What's more, the venues have been placed in unprecedented proximity, all ice sports wrapped in a tight oval near the coast, all snow sports in another cluster in the mountains. With palm trees on the coast, snow on the caps, it'll make for superb scenery.

But the check will come. Ask the Greeks.

Sid, Geno and Co.

Should all go well, one day will stand alone.

“Ice hockey final,” Dmitry Chernyshenko, CEO of the Sochi Committee said in an interview last month, with this prediction: “The U.S. team is in it. Russia wins 5-3.”

Wow. So per that scenario, either Dan Bylsma's Americans or Malkin's Russians probably eliminate Crosby and Canada. And the outcome of those two in the final would be ... well, exactly what it should be with the U.S. going for its first gold since Lake Placid, only this time on Russian soil. Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin would be part of that. Or Malkin could become a national hero. Or who really knows?

“It's an incredible tournament, if you think about all the teams that can win,” Crosby was saying recently.

Pittsburgh's blessed with seven Penguins in the Olympics: Crosby, Malkin, Orpik, Martin, Canada's Chris Kunitz and the two Finns, Jussi Jokinen and Olli Maatta.

Our city also has Lauryn Williams, of Rochester High School in Beaver County, in her third Games, first in Winter. She was a final-day selection for the U.S. bobsled team despite only a year to learn the craft.

Brianne McLaughlin is back, too. She starred for Robert Morris' hockey program and again will be the U.S. Olympic backup goaltender. The Americans are well positioned to beat their bitter Canadian rivals for gold.

You know, it would be easy to get caught up in all the scary stuff. Seems like there isn't a mention of Sochi without the words “security” or “terrorism.” I'll be aware, and I'll cover it, but I'm not going to let it overwhelm until necessary. I love the Olympics too much for that.

And I won't lie: I love the hockey above all. Wrote it then, and I'll repeat: The Canada-U.S. classic in Vancouver was the greatest sporting event I've covered.

Picture a sequel. When weighing all that's unexpected in the month to come, it's infinitely more enlightening — and worthwhile — than envisioning evil.

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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