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RFE/RL's 2014 Winter Olympics Essentials

A stray dog lies on the grass in front of the Bolshoy Ice Dome at the Olympic Park in the Adler district of Sochi (5 Feb 2014)

A stray dog lies on the grass in front of the Bolshoy Ice Dome at the Olympic Park in the Adler district of Sochi (5 Feb 2014)

Although the opening ceremony isn't until Friday, the first events of the 2014 Winter Olympics are already underway in Sochi. As organizers put the finishing touches on what will be the most expensive Olympic Games ever, RFE/RL looks at the key political stories leading up to the games' grand unveiling.

# SPECIAL REPORT: Sochi 2014: Outside the Arena: This three-part series, on location in Sochi by correspondent Tom Balmforth and Abbas Atilay of RFE/RL's Azerbaijan Service, a sobering look at the environmental, economical, and societal expense of Russia's Olympics. Includes expanded "Sochi 2014: Dirty Games" video report on how the construction boom has generated mountains of garbage and streams of toxic waste, damaged the ecosystem, and destroyed wildlife sanctuaries.

# WATCH: RFE/RL's Google+ Hangout Series on Russia includes "Sochi in the Spotlight" and "Keeping Sochi Safe."

# U.S. runner Nick Symmonds made headlines last summer when he used a medal-winning performance at the World Athletics Championships in Moscow to publicly denounce Russia's law prohibiting "gay propaganda." Now Symmonds says he's looking forward to his winter-sport colleagues "testing the boundaries" of the Russian law. Correspondent Daisy Sindelar spoke to Symmonds about the fine line between politics and sports, and correspondent Claire Bigg looks at how other activist-athletes are navigating taking a stand without running afoul of both Russian law and the Olympic Charter itself.

# Animal welfare activists are sounding the alarm over what they describe as Sochi's massive culling of stray dogs. Correspondents Claire Bigg and Dmitry Volchek report.

# Russian President Vladimir Putin had hoped to use the Olympics to showcase a Russia that had recovered from the post-Soviet tumult of the 1990s. Unfortunately for Putin, cover art for major western magazines has been decidedly off-topic when it comes to sharing his vision. By correspondent Glenn Kates.

# Also from Kates, a report on the beleaguered Olympic torch, which has had more than its share of adventures on its way to Sochi.

# Glory isn't the only prize to be claimed by medalists, as some countries are promising cash awards of up to half a million dollars to athletes who bring home the gold. Correspondent Antoine Blua takes a closer look at the bonuses on offer.

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