Seven years ago, Vladimir Putin traveled all the way to Guatemala to woo Olympic leaders with his grandiose vision: hosting the Winter Games in Russia's little-known Black Sea summer resort of Sochi.
Putin's personal pitch - delivered partly in English and French - did the trick as Sochi beat out bids from South Korea and Austria for the right to stage the 2014 Games on the so-called "Russian Riviera."
Putin's political influence and Russia's might bowled over the International Olympic Committee on that day.
It was a risky choice then and it shapes up as even riskier now.
With the opening ceremony less than two weeks away, Putin's prestige and his country's reputation are at stake - riding on a $51 billion mega-project meant to showcase a modern Russia but overshadowed by a barrage of concerns over terrorism, gay rights, human rights, corruption, waste and overspending.
No other Winter Games has faced such an acute terror threat. No other Winter Olympics has been so engulfed in politics. No other recent Olympics has been so closely associated with one man - Putin, the "captain" of the Sochi team.
Amid a politically charged atmosphere and ominous security climate, can Putin and Russia deliver a safe and successful Olympics? Can Sochi defy the grim predictions and dazzle the world with well-organized games featuring shiny new venues, picturesque mountains and the world's best winter sports athletes?
Lest we forget, the Olympics are also supposed to be about sports and athletes: Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and other NHL stars competing for their home countries on the hockey rink; snowboard great Shaun White doing new gravity-defying flips and twists; South Korean figure skating queen Yuna Kim performing graceful magic on the ice; American teen sensation Mikaela Shiffrin zipping through the slalom gates.
About 3,000 athletes from more than 80 countries will be competing in 98 medal events. Twelve new events are on the program, with women's ski jumping making its debut after being rejected for inclusion at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
The medals race is likely to be between Norway, the United States, Canada and Germany. The Russians, coming off their worst ever Winter Games in Vancouver, are determined to bounce back on home territory. A gold medal from the Ovechkin-led hockey team would be the ultimate prize for a country that hasn't won the Olympic title since a "Unified Team" of former Soviet republics triumphed in 1992.
"Olympics are probably the most important thing for Russians," Ovechkin said.
Sochi will also offer up its share of human-interest story lines:
- the return of the Jamaican bobsled team for the first time since 2002, rekindling the feel-good story of 1988 that inspired the film "Cool Runnings."
- track and field stars Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams switching from the Summer Olympics to Winter Games as members of the U.S. women's bobsled team.
- British-based classical-pop musician Vanessa-Mae trading her violin for a pair of skis to compete for Thailand, her father's native country.
- and, yes, those wild and crazy pants worn by the Norwegian men's curling team - red, white and blue zig-zag patterns this time.
For now, the world's focus remains squarely on the terror danger posed by the Islamic insurgency in the Northern Caucasus. An Islamic militant group in Dagestan claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings that killed 34 people in late December in Volgograd and threatened to attack the games in Sochi.
Russian security officials have been hunting for three potential female suicide bombers, one of whom is believed to be in Sochi itself. The suspects are known as "black widows," women seeking to avenge husbands or male relatives killed in Russia's fight against insurgents in the region.
"We know some of them got through the perimeter," said Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee. "What we don't know is how many more black widows are out there. ... How many potential cells could be in Sochi and the Olympic Village?"
Russia is mounting what is believed to be the biggest security operation ever for an Olympics, deploying more than 50,000 police and soldiers to protect the games. The cordon includes naval warships, anti-aircraft batteries and drone aircraft. Two U.S. warships will be in the Black Sea to help if needed.
"We will try to make sure that the security measures taken aren't too intrusive or visible and that they won't put pressure on the athletes, guests and journalists," Putin said.
Sochi's preparations have also been clouded by the Western uproar against a Russian law enacted last year that prohibits gay "propaganda" among minors. Critics and gay activists say the law discriminates against homosexuals and could be used against anyone openly supporting gay rights at the games.
Putin has insisted there will be no discrimination of any kind against any athletes or spectators in Sochi, yet his recent comments linking homosexuality and pedophilia have only inflamed the issue.
The IOC, meanwhile, has reminded athletes to comply with "Rule 50" of the Olympic Charter, which forbids protests or political gestures at Olympic venues.
President Barack Obama has seized on the issue by sending a U.S. delegation to Sochi that includes three openly gay members - tennis great Billie Jean King, figure skater Brian Boitano and ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow.
Hoping to show off a resurgent Russia that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, organizers have built virtually all Olympic facilities from scratch to turn a decaying, Stalinist-era resort into what they hope will be a year-round tourist destination and winter sports mecca for the region.
Sochi features one of the most compact layouts in Olympic history, with all indoor arenas located close to each other in an Olympic Park along the coast. The cluster of snow venues are about 45 minutes away in the Krasnaya Polyana mountains.
"The venues will be perhaps the most spectacular, the best ever," said senior Norwegian IOC member Gerhard Heiberg, who organized the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer.
The project has come at a monumental cost: the $51 billion price tag, which includes construction of news road, tunnels, rail lines and other long-term infrastructure investments, is a record for any Winter or Summer Games. Billions of dollars have disappeared in kickbacks, embezzlement or mismanagement, critics claim.
"What's not good is all the money that's been spent," said Heiberg, head of the IOC marketing commission. "This could influence very badly cities thinking about bidding for the games."
In spite of all the criticism, IOC members believe the Russians deserve the chance to prove the choice of Sochi was the right one.
"Russia today is not the Soviet Union of 1980," Canadian member Dick Pound said. "They are certainly capable of organizing a Winter Olympics. They have created a winter sports complex out of virtually nothing and they did it in 5-6 years. My guess is they will deliver good games."
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JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) -- Leave it to Peyton Manning to put everything in perspective.
"The Super Bowl is a big deal," the Broncos' record-setting quarterback said Sunday after his team arrived in a frozen Big Apple - well, across the icy Hudson River in New Jersey, actually.
Well, yeah, it's only the biggest sporting event in America, a quasi-national holiday. That's not lost on the four-time NFL MVP and owner of one Super Bowl title.
"I know how hard it is to get here," he added. "I know how much time and sacrifice our team has made in order to have this opportunity to play in this game. We were excited to get on that plane. We were excited getting off that plane, and we are looking forward to being here all week and, hopefully, playing a good game next Sunday."
It will take more than a good game to beat the Seahawks, of course. Seattle brings the stingiest defense in the league to the Super Bowl. It's a juicy matchup between an unstoppable force led by Manning (55 TD passes, 606 points) and an immovable object (231 points allowed, ranked first in overall and passing defense).
And it's exactly what the Seahawks traveled across the country for: the biggest of all challenges.
"Historically, it can't get any tougher," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "People can't even dream to have a season (like Manning had). It's an extraordinary challenge, and we'll see how this matchup goes. They have to play us, too."
Plus, both teams might have to fight through the elements in the first outdoor Super Bowl in a cold-weather site.
On Sunday, an icy wind made its way through the Meadowlands, cut across the Hudson and into frigid Manhattan. Looks like Mother Nature is taking seriously the NFL's slogan for this Super Bowl: Best Served Cold.
"Don't let the cold weather get you," is Denver linebacker Wesley Woodyard's mantra. "Once you figure out a point in your mind that you're cold, that's when it gets you. So you just have to block it out and be into the moment."
For the moment, each side is dealing with the distractions that accompany reaching the NFL's super-hyped championship game.
More media, for sure. A glaring spotlight on everything. Spending a week away from home. Practicing in another team's facility: the Seahawks at the Giants' complex across the parking lots from MetLife Stadium, the Broncos at the Jets' place in Florham Park, about 30 minutes from the Meadowlands.
Both coaches, Denver's John Fox and Seattle's Carroll, are concerned about the outdoor practice fields being frozen or covered with snow. Neither sounded eager about working indoors the entire week.
Just another inconvenience that goes along with the Super Bowl, although the NFL said the outdoor fields will be available for practices.
"Cold, hot, snow, rain, football is challenging," Seahawks All-Pro safety Earl Thomas said. "That's why we've got to stay in it (mentally) for the whole game - the personnel, the matchups. It's not about psyching yourself up, it's about the opportunity. You've got the God-given ability and you want to show it off. It doesn't matter where it is."
Where it is, of course, is where every football player seeks to be in early February. Whether the Super Bowl is played on the Meadowlands tundra, in Death Valley or on Mars, every NFL player wants to be suiting up for it.
"I think in order to be a championship football team we've got to be weatherproof, and I think our football team played in all different elements this year," Fox said. "I feel comfortable with where we're at as far as the elements, but it's a part of the game. I think tradition-wise, it's been a part of the league and a part of a lot of championships."
Not one regular Seahawks player has been to this stage, giving Denver something of an edge in experience. The Broncos have four: receiver Wes Welker, tight end Jacob Tamme, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and that quarterback named Peyton.
Manning, of course, is the only current Bronco to have won a ring, with Indianapolis in 2007. He also lost the Super Bowl in 2010 with the Colts.
On Monday, with the long travel out of the way and the introductory news conferences behind them, each team gets down to business. They can't wait.
"I don't believe in such a thing called distractions," Woodyard said. "This is the moment we have got to be in. It's what you wanted your whole life."
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Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos and Richard Sherman's Seattle Seahawks were the NFL's best all season, so it's fitting that they'll meet in the Super Bowl.
Nobody scored as many points or gained as many yards as the Broncos.
Nobody allowed as few points or gave up as few yards as the Seahawks.
And nobody won as many games as those clubs, either.
What a way to finish the season. When the AFC champion Broncos (15-3) play the NFC champion Seahawks (15-3) on Feb. 2 at what could be a chilly MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., it will be the first Super Bowl since 1991 pitting the league's highest-scoring team in the regular season against the team that was scored on the least, according to STATS.
It's also only the second time in the last 20 Super Bowls that the No. 1 seed in each conference reached the NFL championship game.
"It will be a great matchup," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "I think it's an extraordinary opportunity to go against a guy that set all the records in the history of the game."
That, of course, would be Manning, the 37-year-old quarterback who is the only four-time NFL MVP - and no one would be surprised if No. 5 arrives the night before the Super Bowl. He established marks by throwing for 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards, helping Denver lead the league with 37.9 points and 457.3 yards per game. Manning is an inescapable pitchman, too, seen Sunday after Sunday during TV commercials. Hey, there he was selling cars during breaks in the broadcast of the NFC title game. Expect even more face time now.
Manning's oft-told tale, certain to be repeated a million times in the coming days, includes his comeback from a series of surgical procedures to his neck, attempts to cure problems that led him to sit out the entire 2011 season. That also led the Indianapolis Colts to send him packing despite two Super Bowl appearances with that club, including a title in 2007.
"It's certainly well-documented what my journey the past 2 1/2 years has been," said Manning, who could become the first starting QB to lead two franchises to titles, "but this team's overcome a lot of obstacles this year."
None more serious, perhaps, than coach John Fox's absence for about a month because of a heart operation. Other issues included the fax faux pas that precipitated the departure of pass rusher Elvis Dumervil, star linebacker Von Miller's drug-testing suspension and season-ending knee injury, and the losses of a handful of other starters on defense.
"Being in my 16th season, going to my third Super Bowl - I know how hard it is to get there," Manning said.
He threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns in a 26-16 victory over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game Sunday. Manning's offense scored on six consecutive possessions, accounted for more than 500 yards, had zero turnovers and zero sacks.
Ol' No. 18's opposite number in two weeks, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, provides a real contrast as he seeks his - and the Seahawks' - first Super Bowl trophy.
Wilson is 6 inches shorter, 12 years younger, a skilled scrambler in only his second pro season after slipping to the third round of the draft; he's a guy who had to transfer colleges to get playing time and thought about pursuing a baseball career instead.
"Any time you get to the Super Bowl," Wilson said after Seattle beat the San Francisco 49ers 23-17 on Sunday, "it's a special time."
Other members of the Seahawks getting the chance to introduce themselves to a wide audience include rugged running back Marshawn Lynch - fans tossed packs of his favorite candy, Skittles, onto the field after a 40-yard TD run in the third quarter - and Carroll, a rah-rah sort who was a title-winning college coach at Southern California.
And maybe, just maybe, some of Manning's less-heralded defensive teammates - the ones who clamped down on New England's running game Sunday and limited Brady much of the afternoon - will get their chance to shine, too.
Seattle's defense, led by Sherman, allowed an average of 14.4 points and 273.6 yards, and topped the NFL in takeaways.
On Sunday, the Seahawks forced three turnovers in the fourth quarter alone, including a victory-sealing interception by Malcolm Smith after Sherman stretched his left hand to tip Colin Kaepernick's pass away from receiver Michael Crabtree in the end zone.
"I'm the best corner in the game," said Sherman, an All-Pro. "When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you're going to get."
Seattle's only other trip to the big game ended with a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006. Denver will be playing in its seventh Super Bowl and eyeing a third title, to go with those from 1998 and 1999, when current executive John Elway was the QB.
In addition to Elway, Manning can match his younger brother Eli with a second Super Bowl crown. Eli, a spectator on Sunday in Denver, won two trophies with the New York Giants, whose stadium hosts this year's Super Bowl, the first to be played outdoors at a cold-weather site.
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at HTTP://TWITTER.COM/HOWARDFENDRICH
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