Opening Ceremony info: The 18 days of thrills and chills, victories and defeat have begun. The Sochi Winter Olympic Games started with preliminary competition in figure skating, freestyle skiing and snowboarding on Thursday.
The Opening Ceremony will be held today and broadcast tonight at 7:30 p.m.
On Saturday, the first medals of the Games will be awarded as many of the disciplines begin competition.
While there is a lot of focus on security at the Sochi Olympics, here are 50 things to think about with the Opening Ceremony today.
50 things to think about heading into Opening Ceremony:
1. Sochi is a resort city on the Black Sea with a population of about 350,000. Brutal dictator Joseph Stalin vacationed there in the 1930s. The town provided numerous hospitals for Soviet troops in World War II until German advancement turned it into part of the front line in February 1943.
2. The 98 events at this year's Games are 12 more than Vancouver.
3. The Dutch band Kleintje Pils, which has entertained and amused crowds at speedskating events at numerous Olympics, is considering occasionally playing the Village People's "YMCA" as a show of support for gay rights. And for an encore, how about Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl"?
4. Gay former Olympians Caitlin Cahow (hockey) and Brian Boitano (figure skating) are among the official U.S. delegation to the Games; an obvious move by President Obama to show disapproval for Russia's anti-gay policies. Tennis legend and activist Billie Jean King had to decline at the last minute to be with her ill mother. A senior member of Italy's Olympic Committee called the contingent "absurd."
5. Nerves are so frayed about a possible terrorist attack that the U.S. Navy will position ships in the Black Sea in case a mass evacuation is necessary. Sure does make those German shepherds that Philly police brought out during the 1980 World Series seem puny.
6. Sochi is on the same latitude line as Toronto. With an average February temperature of 43 degrees, it is the warmest site for a Winter Games.
7. NBC and its derivatives will have 539 hours of coverage with NBCSN (230-plus) and NBC proper (185) carrying the majority.
8. Nancy Kerrigan will be an analyst for the figure-skating coverage. Tonya Harding, hopefully, will be nowhere to be found.
9. South Korea's Kim Yu-Na has a good chance to join Norway's Sonja Henie (1928-36) and East Germany's Katarina Witt (1984-88) as only the third woman to win consecutive Olympic figure-skating gold medals.
10. The outrageous outfits worn by Norway's curling team are zany/painful, but they also belie the team's ability. The Norwegians took silver in Vancouver and should again be among the biggest challengers for Canada, winners of the last two Olympic golds.
11. Bode Miller is the headliner, but Ted Ligety is the U.S. skier to watch. He's especially salty after coming up medal-less in Vancouver 4 years ago. "He fouls me harder than anybody else on the basketball court," Miller said of Ligety. "He tries to take me out in soccer. He's just very competitive."
12. Ligety last year became the first man to win three golds at a world championship since Jean-Claude Killy and recently became the first to win four consecutive World Cup giant slalom races since Alberto Tomba in 1991. Even those of us who don't know a Super-G from a Circle-K know the legendary names of Killy and Tomba.
13. American superstar skier Lindsey Vonn will miss the Games with a knee injury, but Lindsey Van is a pioneer in women's ski jumping, which, after years of legal wrangling, finally will make its Olympic debut. It has been a men's event since 1924.
14. The favorite in the women's ski jump is Japan's Sara Takanashi, 17, a star on the World Cup circuit despite standing just 4 feet, 11 inches.
15. Another debut sport is relay luge, which sounds like a four-car pileup on Route 422 waiting to happen. Participating teams send down three sleds — one female, one male and a doubles team. At the end of each run, the sledder must hit a pad that opens a gate for their subsequent teammate. It's not nearly as easy as it sounds, and the competition is susceptible to all sorts of mayhem.
16. India's three-person contingent will be walking under the Olympic flag after the International Olympic Committee banned India for corruption. "It is a sad and embarrassing situation that Indian sport has been put in," luger Shiva Keshavan said. India, the second-most populous country in the world, has never won a Winter Olympic medal.
17. The IOC, as part of a $10 million fund to monitor competition integrity, has asked the Nevada Gaming Control Board to be on alert. Dramatic changes in odds can often be a sign of match-fixing. Olympic wagering isn't permitted in Vegas, but the sportsbooks do keep an eye on illegal and offshore activity. So if you put a C-note on Norway's men to win the luge, someone will be watching.
18. Yuzuru Hanyu has a chance to become Japan's first gold medalist in men's figure skating. He was practicing when the epic tsunami hit his hometown of Sendai in 2011, and he evacuated the arena still wearing his skates. He has been training in Canada ever since.
19. Norwegian biathlete Ole Einar Bjorndalen, who turned 40 on Jan. 27, has 11 Olympic medals (six gold) and needs one to tie countryman Bjorn Daehlie as the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time. Daehlie, a cross-country skier, won his last Olympic medal at Nagano in 1998.
20. Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov also is the president of the Russian Biathlon Union.
21. Tracy Barnes made plenty of eyes water when she voluntarily gave up her spot on the U.S. biathlon team to her sister, Lanny, who was ill during qualifying and still barely missed making the team on her own merits. "If you care enough about a person, you will make any sacrifice for them," Tracy Barnes said.
22. U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association chef Allen Tran says one of the most popular condiments among his athletes is the wonderfully tangy Sriracha sauce.
23. "My philosophy is nutrition is as crucial and foundational as their training and coaching," Tran said. "Nutrition is the fuel that gets them going." Funny, I use that same line on my sports editor every time I try to expense a dinner from the Capital Grille.
24. All sorts of upheaval with Canada's women's hockey team. There was a sudden coaching change in December, and former Flyer Kevin Dineen, with no women's international coaching experience, was named to the post. Then, one of Dineen's first moves was replacing legendary captain Hayley Wickenheiser with Caroline Ouellette.
25. Dineen's first game as coach was an exhibition against Team USA on Dec. 28 that was marred by a full-on brawl. "(My wife Annie) was watching at home in Florida and she's like, 'What the heck are you doing with that team?' "
26. Amanda Kessel, who had 101 points in 37 games for the University of Minnesota to earn player of the year honors in 2012-13, is among the Olympic rookies playing for Team USA. She is the sister of Phil Kessel, the Toronto Maple Leafs star who is part of the U.S. men's team.
27. Team USA's captain is forward Meghan Duggan. The Americans open the tournament Saturday at 3 a.m. against Finland. They'll play Canada in pool play on Feb. 12 at 7:30 a.m. NBCSN will televise both.
28. Spain's flag bearer is Javier Fernandez, who has won the last two European figure-skating titles. He was 14th in 2010 when he became the first Spaniard to compete in Olympic figure skating since Dario Villalba in 1956.
29. Dutch speedskater Sven Kramer is determined to put the biggest blunder of the 2010 Games behind him. Kramer missed out on a third gold medal when his coach directed him to the wrong lane during a changeover in the 10,000 meters. "I want to make it into something beautiful," Kramer said. "I am not just (here) for the Olympic spirit. I already have had that."
30. The men's 10,000-meter speedskating competition is Tuesday, Feb. 18, at 8 a.m. EST. NBCSN will have it live.
31. German speedskater Claudia Pechstein is competing in her sixth Olympics. It would be her seventh, but a 2-year doping ban caused by irregular blood levels (not a failed drug test) prevented her from competing in Vancouver. It also left her with a sizable thorn in her side.
32. "When I was robbed by the International Skating Union of my chance to compete (in 2010) . . . I swore to myself: You are going to be in Sochi and you are going to try to win your 10th Olympic medal," said Pechstein, winner of five golds, two silvers and two bronzes. "A medal is my dream."
33. Before becoming an Olympic speedskater, Brittany Bowe was a point guard at Florida Atlantic University, where she graduated eighth in school history in scoring.
34. There is predictable curiosity surrounding track stars Lolo Jones and Lauren Williams competing for the U.S. women's bobsled team as pushers. Athletes crossing over into bobsledding isn't new. NFL star Herschel Walker competed for Team USA in 1992.
35. One of the drawbacks to having aggressive pushers in bobsledding is that often they will jump into the sled and gouge the driver with their spikes. In fact, many drivers take preventative tetanus shots.
36. The Jamaican bobsled team got to Russia, but some of its equipment did not — at least right away. No bobsled, no cry. The Jamaicans are thrilled to be in Sochi, even if there is practically zero chance of them getting to the podium. "I couldn't walk in the streets of Jamaica if we win a medal," brakeman Marvin Dixon told the Deseret Morning News. "Usain Bolt would be second to us, I tell you."
37. Russia selected national icon Yevgeny Plushenko to be its only male figure-skating competitor largely because it worried about the inexperience of its younger competitors. Plushenko, a gold medalist in 2006 and silver medalist in Vancouver, finished second to 18-year-old Maxim Kovtun in December's Russian nationals.
38. Canada and the USA men's hockey teams met for the gold medal in 2002 and 2010, when the Olympics were held in North America (Salt Lake City and Vancouver). But when held elsewhere, on generally larger ice surfaces, neither country medaled during the NHL era.
39. "I always felt you couldn't maintain the same energy that you can on a smaller rink, where you can get places quicker," said three-time U.S. Olympian Bill Guerin. "When you're chasing a defenseman into the corner, you have to chase him an extra 5 or 10 feet."
40. Rinks in Sochi will be 15 feet wider and the neutral zone will be 8 feet larger than most NHL surfaces. There also will be 2 feet more behind the goalies. The premium on skating is probably a huge reason Bobby Ryan didn't make Team USA, but a guy such as James van Riemsdyk did.
41. U.S. halfpipe skier Angeli VanLaanen had Lyme disease for 14 years before it was detected. Once it was diagnosed, she spent 3 years away from skiing because of treatment.
42. The original budget for the Games was $12 billion USD, but more than $51 billion has been spent. Vancouver spent $8 billion in 2010.
43. There have been many allegations, including from IOC member Gian-Franco Kasper, that as much as one-third was embezzled by the Russian government.
44. While Sochi has been spiffed up for the visitors, much of the surrounding area is a wasteland. Resident Vladimir Zarytovsky described to the Associated Press some of the squalor in which his fellow Sochians live, including the community outdoor bathroom. "You have to put on rubber boots if you want to go to the toilet," he explained.
45. South Korea's PyeongChang will host the 2018 Games. Given South Korea's lack of hockey tradition, there is serious speculation that Sochi will be the last Olympics for NHL players until at least 2022 — when Claude Giroux will be 34.
46. Renowned British violinist Vanessa-Mae will compete as an alpine skier representing Thailand, where she was born. She was condemned by human-rights groups, along with Hilary Swank, for performing at a birthday party for allegedly ruthless Chechen leader (and Kremlin ally) Ramzan Kadyrov, in 2011.
47. Speedskater Shani Davis and snowboarders Seth Wescott and Shaun White are trying to become the first U.S. males to win a gold medal in three different Winter Olympics. Davis is qualified in three events and would also be the first speedskater ever (regardless of country) to win gold in three consecutive Olympics.
48. "It's my time," said Davis, 31. "I'm going to try to take advantage of it and share myself and my story with the world as much as I can without it interfering with what I have to do."
49. White pulled out of the slopestyle competition to focus on halfpipe, where he is expected to try a frontside double-cork 1440. The move includes a pair of front flips while fully rotating four times. The Philadelphia equivalent is driving the Schuylkill Expressway in a snowstorm during rush hour.
50. "If you're not scaring yourself," said fellow snowboarder Scotty Lago, "you're not doing it right."