Sochi takes centre stage

The 2014 Winter Olympics opening ceremony will take place on Friday afternoon

The 2014 Winter Olympics opening ceremony will take place on Friday afternoon

First published in National Sport News © by

Sochi steps into the spotlight as Russia prepares to launch its first Winter Olympics with a spectacular opening ceremony on Friday, starting at 20.14 local time (16.14GMT).

A £30billion price tag demonstrates that no expense has been spared in staging the Games on the Black Sea coast, with impressive venues in the mountains and a compact purpose-built Olympic Park on the coast.

Around 2,900 athletes are set to compete in 15 disciplines starting on Saturday, switching the focus from concerns over security, human rights and last-minute hitches to the sporting action.

Festive sweaters and multi-coloured jackets will light up the ceremony and the athletes are set to parade a weird and wonderful section of Olympic Games fashions in the Fisht Olympic Stadium - although precise details of the ceremony are being kept top-secret.

Russia's female athletes will fear fur-trimmed red, blue and white coats that bear an uncanny resemblance to outfits worn by Santa's little helpers - Father Christmas' granddaughter in Russian folk tradition.

Short Track speed skater Jon Eley is Great Britain's flag bearer for the opening of a Games where hopes are high.

Team GB have been set a target of winning at least three medals in Sochi and Lizzy Yarnold, who tops the current skeleton rankings, is arguably the strongest bet to deliver. Yarnold's Skeleton team-mate Shelley Rudman, the men's and women's curling teams skippered by David Murdoch and Eve Muirhead respectively, freestyle skiing slopestylers James Woods and Katie Summerhayes and short track speed skater Elise Christie are other strong medal prospects.

The Russians, as the Canadians were in Vancouver four years ago, will be desperate for gold in the men's ice hockey tournament and will be hoping figure skater Evgeny Plyushchenko can challenge for a medal.

The host nation will also be determined to challenge towards the top of the medals table, having finished in a lowly 11th place in Vancouver.

Norway, Canada and the United States are most likely to be battling it out to top the medals table in Sochi.

Shaun White, having ditched the slopestyle on Thursday, will focus on defending his Olympic title in the halfpipe. The Canadians will be looking for medals from their short track speed skating star Charles Hamelin and Norway's brightest star may be cross country athlete Marit Bjoergen, who won five medals in Vancouver and could top that here.

Making their first appearance at the Winter Olympics will be women's ski jump, luge team relay and biathlon mixed relay, and five gold medals will be competed for on Saturday in snowboarding, where Britain's Jamie Nicholls will compete in the final, speedskating, biathlon, cross-country skiing and freestyle skiing.

Sochi 2014 organisers say 66 leaders including heads of state and international organisations will attend the ceremony, with United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and the respective leaders of China and Japan joining Russian president Vladimir Putin.

But the ceremony will be notable for the absence of a number of world leaders, including Barack Obama, David Cameron and Angela Merkel.

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