The approaching Sochi Olympics may be keeping security experts and civil rights activists the busiest, but at least one group is keeping its hopes for a successful games high: former and current Russian athletes.

The security concerns are real, and President Vladimir Putin's signing of a gay propaganda law last June is an issue not going away. But the Olympics are the Olympics, and Russians have been waiting since the 1980 summer games in Moscow for another shot.

Sergei Ponomarenko, the winner of a 1992 ice dancing gold medal for Russia with his wife, Marina Klimova, visited Sochi in late-December. He said he was awed by what he saw.

"The (ice skating) facility is amazing," he said. "Just gorgeous. I was checking out everything. It's almost like an airport. It's terrific."

These days Ponomarenko and Klimova teach and coach skating at Sharks Ice at San Jose. They won't be attending the games in Sochi even though Ponomarenko is qualified to judge. The rules don't allow those from countries ranked in the top 10 to judge, so he'll watch at home in Morgan Hill. He said those who do make the trip will enjoy it -- if they don't get bogged down with the security precautions.

Security is expected to be the most rigorous in Olympic history in the wake of two bombings of a Volgograd train station last month that killed more than 30 and injured more than 100. The U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for the region shortly thereafter.


Advertisement

"It will be very tough security," Ponomarenko said. "Very tough."

Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals captain and a member of the Russian ice hockey team, told reporters he was confounded by the violence in the region. "I don't know why people are doing that kind of stuff. Just live your life." But he said the Russian hockey team must stay focused on its primary burden: National expectations of bringing home Russia's first gold medal in 22 years.

"The Olympics are probably the most important thing for Russians than any other athletes in the whole world," Ovechkin said during a recent conference call. "And since I was a little kid and since everybody was a little kid, their dream was playing in the Olympic Games, especially if we have a chance to represent our country in Sochi, Russia."

But, he added, "I don't think somebody (on the Russian team) is going to (think) their mission is done to be just on the Olympic team. Our mission is to try to win gold medal."

Tennis great Maria Sharapova, herself an Olympic silver medalist in 2012, was born in Siberia, but she lived in Sochi until age 6. She'll be on hand as part of NBC's team and couldn't be happier to be heading home.

"As an Olympian, it means so much to me for this year's Olympic Games to be hosted in my hometown," Sharapova told Forbes in November. "Sochi has such a rich culture and history that I'm looking forward to sharing with the world."

In 2010, Ksenia Makarova represented Russia in the Vancouver Olympics, finishing 10th in figure skating. Makarova was 8 when her parents, Lorisa Selezneva and Oleg Makarov, emigrated to the U.S. in 2000. Six months ago, she and her parents, who won medals for Russia in pairs figure skating in 1984 in Sarajevo, became U.S. citizens. Makarova had hoped to skate for Team USA next month, but a hip injury sidelined her.

At one point she was the pairs partner of Johnny Weir, an openly gay U.S. Olympian who retired last year and who will be doing TV work for NBC. So the anti-gay laws recently enacted in Russia are on the front burner for her.

"Sport is sport, and anybody should be allowed to compete," Makarova told MSNBC. "(The Olympics are) about being an athlete."

Ovechkin, talking with National Public Radio, said he doesn't believe gay athletes need to be worried about their safety in Sochi.

"No, I don't think so," he said. "To be honest with you, it's just a situation when people have their rights. And I'm just a hockey player. I'm just support(ing) everybody.

Ponomarenko said that while the facilities he saw in Sochi were first-class, the area's roads and landscaping were lacking. Even so, he expects his homeland to pull it all together.

"People are very friendly there," he said. "It's really a good situation. The security is good. It may just be my view, but all the people are absolutely friendly, even the security guys.

"I think everything will be fine. The roads may be terrible and the landscaping is not ready, but the facilities are ready."

Follow John Hickey on Twitter at twitter.com/JHickey3