SOCHI, Russia — With the sun setting over the Black Sea Tuesday night, window washers cleaned the glass-paneled exterior of the Bolshoy Ice Dome. Nearby, a man walked along the hockey arena’s rooftop ridge and appeared to inspect that part of the building. There were piles of dirt behind other venues, freshly planted trees near the Medals Plaza and mini-mazes of security fencing all around.
With the opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics coming Friday, the Olympic Park, home to the Bolshoy Ice Dome and five other venues in the coastal cluster, remained a work in progress.
A female volunteer headed to the dress rehearsal at Fisht Stadium Tuesday night said, “It’s Russian style: Everything till the last minute, but a good result.”
Across the street from the Olympic Park, the heart of the Olympic Village offered some evidence to support the woman’s claims. The area looked like a modern, comfortable apartment complex. National flags and patriotic banners dressed up the facades of buildings that figure skaters, speedskaters, and hockey players now call home, though the US delegation skipped the decorating frenzy. Athletes buzzed around on rented bicycles unique to each country, with the bright orange cycles of the Netherlands contingent easily recognizable.
The atmosphere was laidback. The waist-high barriers around small outdoor pools were the only fences visible from the main road that runs past the athletes’ residences.
Depending on where you stand, sometimes even in which direction you face, the main sites make the Sochi Olympics look and feel very different. Some gleaming new buildings, like the athletes’ housing and the coastal venues, fit Russia’s desired image for the Games. But outside the tightly framed picture of what organizers want audiences here and at home to see, there is a mad dash to finish construction and ready places for their Olympic closeups.
Every Olympic host faces this issue, but it seems the Russians are in more of a mad dash than most. At least that would help explain why construction workers were busy pulling apart a speed bump on the only road to Fisht Stadium as volunteers, visitors, and media flooded to the arena for the dress rehearsal. Meanwhile, the area immediately surrounding the athletes’ housing is neatly manicured, an impressive improvement from when many competitors last visited the area for test events.
“I’m very happy with how this whole thing turned out,” said short-track speedskater J.R. Celski as he returned from practice and parked his bike outside Team USA’s residences. “We came here about a year ago and nothing was finished.
“Just to see the work and effort they put in to make it look the way it does now is amazing. It’s been completely transformed from when we came here before.
“I feel very comfortable being here. Everything is within close proximity. All the venues are right next to each other, which makes for a great energy and a great atmosphere.”
Celski said he expected a room similar to a small-sized closet and was pleasantly surprised by the “huge” quarters he shares with a teammate.
For obvious reasons, the athletes and their accommodations and competition venues are the priority at any Games. In the athletes’ dining hall, competitors line up for offerings that range from kimchi to congee to braised lamb curry. Lunchtime on Tuesday offered nearly 20 entree options all labeled with calorie counts and grams of fat, carbohydrates, protein, and sodium. For a table with a wide selection of bread and pastry offerings, a baker took the time to create decorative windmills and small houses from bread.
In the recreation center, the heavy beat of techno music filled the air as a Rambo video game, foosball, air hockey table, and Wii setups awaited players. Two men from Uzbekistan occupied one of the pool tables.
In a not-so-quiet corner, there were books available to borrow, including Russian classics such as “Anna Karenina” by Tolstoy and “The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoevsky alongside the complete Harry Potter collection. The most curious entry? “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which focuses on the Soviet Union’s forced labor camps.
While the reading corner was empty, there was a handful of athletes in the fitness center next door, working out with free weights and using cardio machines.
“They’ve done a terrific job,” said Stan Wong, an athletic trainer for the men’s hockey team from Fall River, Mass., who is enjoying his third Olympics. “You can see how much money has been spent.”
Yes, that $51 billion had to go somewhere.
Still, to get from the athletes’ accommodations to the cafeteria, recreation center, and gym, a winding pathway takes competitors past landscaping that left a lot to be desired. Workers were still busy planting trees in the area, trying to make it look more hospitable.
But there are bigger and more pressing concerns than new trees and good-looking green spaces. The safety of athletes and visitors is still clearly a priority for organizers. Armed guards of all sorts are becoming a more visible presence as the start of the Games draws closer. In the Olympic Park, an announcement in English asked attendees to report any suspicious activity.
Yet US athletes seem to feel comfortable.
“I truly feel just as safe and secure here as my previous two Olympics,” said moguls skier Hannah Kearney, who’s living at the Olympic Village in the mountain cluster. “We’ve never stayed in the athletes’ village before while we’re competing and actually that adds an element of comfort because you’re already in the secure zone. It’s actually a little less stressful here than previous Olympics.”
Added Celski, “I feel very safe here. They’ve assured us that everything is going to be OK. I’m just here to focus on the competition and that’s the way they’re making me feel.”
And once the mad-dash preparations end and the real competition starts, the Sochi Olympics may take on an entirely new and different feel.