| Maria Sharapova |
Sochi: The build-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics has been blighted by concerns for safety but Maria Sharapova is convinced there is nothing to worry about.
Be it fears for security during the 18-day-long event or doubts about how gay people will be treated, there has been a sense of uneasiness surrounding those heading to Sochi.
Recent months have seen bombings in Volgograd and reports of suicide bombers dubbed ‘black widows’ readying themselves for operation during the Games, which run from February 6-23.
Meanwhile the host nation’s government banned what it defined as ‘gay propaganda’ in 2013 — a move that many believe effectively stops the freedom of gay rights protests in Russia.
Despite all of this, Sharapova, who moved to Sochi at the age of two and went on to spend much of her childhood there, is expecting the Olympics to be a success.
“Once I arrived here, I knew that all the athletes will feel extremely safe,” the 26-year-old said in Sochi.
“I certainly had my doubts before, because I’ve been reading a lot about the city itself. Over the last few months, I’ve been reading a lot of the media and watching television, but now I’ve seen how everything has come together.”
Despite her worries prior to returning to Sochi, the four-time Grand Slam winner has stressed that anybody attending the Games, including the athletes themselves, has no reason to be concerned.
“The security has been tough but in a very safe way and in a safe manner," she said.
Sharapova is an Olympian herself, having represented Russia in the Olympics Games two years ago, when she won a silver medal in the women’s singles.
She experienced first hand the hard work that went into making London 2012 a success, and sees no reason why that cannot be replicated in Sochi.
“As an athlete, security is really important. I experienced it in the Summer Games and really appreciated it. I think it’s extremely important and we all expect that kind of safety,” she said, before turning her thoughts to the preparations.
“For many years, we were hearing whether everything would be ready or not: whether the rail stations would be ready, how were the athletes going to go up to the mountains from the Olympic Park.
“All those questions raised a lot of concerns, but once I got here I realised that everything would be alright. Feel safe in my hometown,” assured the Russian.
Sharapova explained that watching the Olympics was a far bigger childhood memory for her than viewing any Grand Slam tennis competition, and revealed that figure skating and ice hockey were the sports she was most looking forward to following.
She is similarly excited about the transition of her former home city.
“Many things have changed in the last 20 years or so,” she said.
“It has been such an incredible turnaround since winning the (right to host the) Olympics. I am so happy that everyone has a chance to come here and visit the true meaning of the city — because at its core, it’s a very beautiful city that is so full of nature.
“It’s such a unique opportunity to be able to swim in the Black Sea and then drive an hour up to the mountains to ski — that’s the type of experience we want to share with everyone whocomes here.”
She hopes the Games will place Sochi firmly on the map.
“When I went to America from Sochi no one knew about Sochi, where it is,” Sharapova said. “I hope that after the Olympics I will not need to explain any more where Sochi is as everyone will know.”
Speaking further, she said: “This is where I started playing my sport so that is the most meaningful thing for me.
“It’s so special and meaningful for me to have these Winter Games in Sochi, somewhere I spent five, six years of my childhood, where I created so many memories,” the 26-year-old added.
“When I heard the Olympics would be here I was so happy because I would hope that people would finally know about this city. Because I always believed it was special and unique and I hoped that the rest of the world would finally see that.”
She said she would love to play in another Olympics.
“I would like another Olympic experience. London was really incredible,” she said.
Sharapova, who endured an injury-plagued 2013, has had a mixed start to the new season, reaching two semi-finals but crashing out in the fourth round of Australian Open.
“I think it's a success in terms of that I'm back and that I’m healthy,” she said after her Australian Open exit.
“That’s quite important otherwise I wouldn’t give myself a chance to play.
“So on that note, I have to look at the positives and see where I have come from in four or five months. I haven't played a lot of tennis in those six months.”
Sharapova said she grew up watching figure skating and ice hockey. When asked who she would be supporting if it came to a crunch ice hockey gold medal match between Russia and the US, Sharapova was unequivocal.
“My home country for sure,” she said. (Agencies)