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Midway through, Sochi Games delivering for Putin

Midway through, Sochi Games delivering for Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin claps during the third period of a men's ice hockey game between the USA and Russia at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
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SOCHI, Russia (AP) - No protests. No real problems.

But plenty of Putin.

Midway through the Winter Olympics, things couldn't be going much better for both Russia and its president, even if winter is actually missing from Sochi itself. The arenas and mountains are spectacular, the games have been peaceful and protest-free, and Russians seem filled with pride about their country's ability to put on a spectacle for the world to see.

Worries about terrorist attacks and fears that gay protests could overshadow the Olympics have faded as the world's best battle for medals on the ice and in the snow. Grandstands are mostly filled, television ratings are strong, and athletes haven't said a negative word about either Russia's laws or the food in the athlete's village.

Yes, a heat wave turned the snow a bit slushy and drew bathers to the Black Sea just steps from the main Olympic stadium. But weather is a factor at any Winter Games, and even Vladimir Putin can't do anything about that.

In charge of it all is the Russian president, who won the games with a personal plea and has so far treated them as his personal playground. Putin presided over the opening ceremonies, celebrated his country's first gold medal on ice with figure skaters, and watched stone-faced as the Russian hockey team lost an epic shootout Saturday to the U.S. in a tournament that means more to the country than 100 gold medals.

On Friday he even paid a visit to the U.S. team house, where he wore a pin that read "Happy Valentine's Day from Team USA" while chatting with athletes over a glass of wine.

If these are Putin's Olympics, he has spared no expense to put them on. They are the costliest ever, a $51 billion gamble that transcends sports as part of an effort to show Russia's resurgence as a world power.

Are they worth it? They just might be to some of the fans getting Russian flags painted on their faces earlier in the week as they waited to enter the figure skating arena.

"It is very special for us," said Diana Severyukhin, a Sochi-area resident who was attending the skating with her urologist father. "I'm proud of our country to be here."

Russian fans waved flags and cheered wildly as the home country won its first gold in team figure skating, though the opening week wasn't all fun and games. Four-time medalist Evegny Plushenko fell in the short program and withdrew from his attempt to make Olympic history, and the Russian hockey team was so shaky in its opener that one sports writer asked the coach if it was "a death sentence" should the team let Semyon Varlamov remain in goal.

The U.S. took its lumps, too. Prohibitive favorite Shaun White was shut out in his bid for two gold medals, speedskater Shani Davis came up short, and Bode Miller and Julia Mancuso missed medals in the downhill. If it weren't for a strong showing by U.S. women in sports invented in recent years mostly on American slopes, the perennial Olympic power would be an also ran in these games.

And then there was the equipment malfunction that short-circuited U.S. hopes in speed skating - or so the skaters believe. The high-tech uniforms that were supposed to make them go even faster were a drag, they claimed, and they switched back to the old ones to try and get back on the medal podium.

Norwegians, meanwhile, kept winning, though few paid attention. The country of just 5 million people is the leading medal winner in Olympic history, but the sports of cross country and biathlon aren't high on the glamour list and don't translate well on TV.

The first full week of the Olympics, though, was as much about what didn't happen as what did.

Sochi wasn't overrun by packs of marauding stray dogs, as some journalists had come to expect. Hotel rooms were finished for the most part, and there has been nothing but raves over the efficiency of an Olympic transportation system charged with moving people between the mountains and the coast.

And while temperatures soared higher than snowboarders on a slick halfpipe, there was plenty of snow stockpiled in the mountains and no truth to the quip that snowboarding would become waterboarding.

Most seriously, there was no sign that Islamic terrorists who roam just a few hundred miles over the mountains have done anything to carry out their leader's pre-Olympic plea to disrupt the games.

Credit much of that to a massive security operation that sealed off the area around Sochi, with chips embedded in credentials to track where everyone goes. There's security everywhere but, at the same time, the net cast around these games hasn't seemed terribly overbearing.

"I'm not going to say it's impossible for someone to do something, but it will be so difficult to do that it's just not going to be worth their while," said Robert Schaefer, a former Green Beret who serves as a security analyst for NBC television and had expressed reservations about Russian security before the Olympics. "I'm really pleased about it. I'd bring my kids over at this point."

Not as pleased are those who thought the Olympics would be used as a platform to protest Russian laws that prohibit gay "propaganda" that might reach children. There was talk before the games that athletes - particularly medal winners - would use the spotlight to speak out against the law, but they have remained silent about the issue.

"That still may happen," said Andre Banks, executive director of AllOut, one of the protest groups. "We expect as the games go on there may be other expressions. But at the end of the day it's up to the athlete to find the moment to make that expression."

Ultimately, the story that played out in the opening week is one that patterns almost every Olympics before. While problems and mistakes are always under the spotlight, they tend to fade to the background as the athletes themselves take the stage.

So far, the biggest mishaps in Sochi have been an Olympic ring that didn't fully light in opening ceremonies (luckily, Putin had his back turned when it happened), a track worker who suffered broken legs when hit by a speeding bobsled and, on Saturday, and a broken back suffered during training by Russian skicross racer Maria Komissarova.

Meanwhile, worries that arenas and grandstands would be half empty because so few foreigners made the trip to Sochi were put to rest. Organizers reported selling more than 1 million tickets, and people stood in line at ticket booths to try and get more.

While Russians cheered their athletes on, they cheered others, too. And the Olympic mall area has become an increasingly popular spot to have a drink or eat a stuffed crepe while watching the dancing water play to music underneath the Olympic flame.

"Figure skating, fantastic atmosphere. Ice hockey, fantastic atmosphere, biathlon, fantastic atmosphere," IOC president Thomas Bach said. "From this point of view, it's going very well. The athletes are happy. "

There's still a full week to go, of course, and nothing is guaranteed. One bad or bloody incident could throw everything in turmoil and forever stain the games.

But the Sochi Olympics seem to have found a voice, or at least a spirit. They're achieving an identity of their own, even while cloaked in the identity of everything Putin.

Still, if Russia should fail to come home with a gold in hockey, all bets are off.

"The most exciting part, I think, is ahead and we are all dreaming about the finals," 'said Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the Sochi organizing committee. "Especially in the ice hockey, the most dramatic (for us Russians) moment of the games. "

That drama was on full display Saturday when even overtime wasn't enough to settle a preliminary game between the U.S. and Russia. T.J. Oshie finally settled it for the Americans in a shootout, sending Putin and his countrymen home disappointed but their team still very much in the hunt for gold.

There are limits to Putin's power. He can't control the weather, and he can't play goalie for the Russian team.

And with the U.S. and the defending champs from Canada looking strong, even the $51 billion he's shelling out for his games may not be enough to buy the one prize that matters most.
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