SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Time for the games to begin. Thank goodness.
To put it mildly, this has not been the most carefree of lead-ups to the Olympics. It has been roiled by security concerns, arguments about gay rights and the still-questionable hosting abilities of a country that spent $50 billion but remained busy slapping paint on buildings only hours before the cauldron was set to be lit.
Snowboarder Shaun White pulled out of slopestyle — one of the newest, most-anticipated events.
Lindsey Vonn never showed up.
Still, there are in the neighborhood of 3,000 skiers, skaters, sliders and others getting ready to put on a show for the next 16 days or so. Most of them will be at the opening ceremony Friday, where the long, time-filling barrage of fun facts about the 88 participating countries — "Yes, Bob, there really is a mountain in Jamaica. Blue Mountain Peak rises to 7,402 feet" — will brighten the TV coverage.
Then, on Saturday, it's finally "go" time. (Except for the few dozen athletes who actually compete Thursday in a handful of events that started early due to a jam-packed schedule.)
Here are a few things to watch as the action gets going in earnest:
TEAM SKATING — Can he or can't he? Russian skating icon Evgeni Plushenko won a spot for a newly added event, team figure skating. It was based upon a performance seen by nobody outside of the country's top skating officials. Dealing with back problems, Plushenko has hardly been seen in actual competition over the past year. The skater who has already won Olympic gold and two silvers is hoping to add another to his collection in an event designed to bring a sense of camaraderie to a sport that has always been about individual performances. The men's team long program is Sunday.
BREAKING YOUR OWN RECORD — In some circles, Ole Einar Bjoerndalen of Norway is considered among the best athletes of all time. He's got a record 11 Olympic medals in the taxing sport of biathlon. Still competing at 40, he'll go for No. 12 on Saturday in the 10 kilometer sprint. While Americans may not appreciate biathlon in the same way Olympic fans on the other side of the Atlantic do, everyone loves watching a wily ol' pro give it one more shot. Bjoerndalen will certainly make it worth watching. "For me, only first place counts, you can forget the rest," he said.