SOCHI, Russia — The image that summed up the Sochi Olympics came on an unseasonably warm day, when temperatures climbed close to 70 degrees. On a bench overlooking the Black Sea, two women enjoyed the view. Snow-capped Caucasus Mountains on the left. Rocky coastline and sparkling blue water in front of them. One woman wore a neon green bikini, while the other was in a winter jacket.
The scene certainly fit the official slogan of these Games: Hot. Cool. Yours. The motto was about as comprehensible an advertising line as the sign that offered “honey with uterine milk” at a kiosk outside my hotel. (Yes, I tried it. I’m not exactly sure what was in it.) But unlike much of what took place around the venues of the hot-cool-yours Olympics, also known as President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate vanity project, the women by the sea showed the odd, sometimes uncomfortable, yet always curious reality that was the Sochi Games. Away from the new, gleaming venues and the performances on the ice and the snow, there were fewer choreographed moments. I’m not sure I saw anything truly authentic, but I did encounter an entertaining version of Russia.
There were women in bikinis on the beach and shirtless men in the grandstands at Alpine skiing events; karaoke wine bars; Olympic gold medalists running on the Black Sea promenade; crepes with caviar and, at one venue, “meat salad in German” (not sure about that one, either); countless security checks; buses racing through the mountains; dogs, dogs, and more dogs; a mountain village that looked more like a Hollywood set and stood almost as empty at night; and Russian pride and culture in overdrive, among other sights.
The culture was a bit force-fed, showing up in some form almost 24 hours a day. Musicians performed traditional Russian songs at a couple of stages within one media hotel cluster. There were teahouses and plenty of options for buying traditional sweets and jellied meats, not to mention a variety of cabbage dishes served at my hotel’s breakfast buffet in a hockey tent bar. Supersized photos of Russian hockey greats decorated the walls and air hockey tables filled one section.
From the volunteers around Olympic Park to the workers in venues to ordinary citizens, people from the host country were eager to help. Sometimes they were so insistent on helping, they led you in the wrong direction or gave you bad information. I encountered this when I bought a salad late one night at the Sanki Sliding Center. I didn’t want dressing, but the chef shouted at me, “Woman, sauce, please.” Then, he pointed to bottles of ketchup and mayo. It was a do-it-yourself Russian dressing situation.
Of all the Russians on hand to help, I come away from these Games most impressed by the Russian bus drivers, particularly the group that drove between the Gorki Media Center in the mountains and the venue for Alpine skiing. They were fearless and madly skilled. Hairpin turn, one hand on the steering wheel, 50 miles per hour, no problem. There were many times when I thought, “This is not going to end well.” During the ride that took anywhere from 40 minutes to almost an hour depending on your driver’s fearlessness, I tried to count the number of hairpin turns. But I lost track after about 10. Some reporters emerged from the buses with bad cases of motion sickness.
Overall, transportation was very efficient, with buses always on time. I talked to a German visitor and asked about the system of buses and trains that ferried people around and he said, “Wonderful. No problems.” Considering the source, I call that high praise. Then again, there was no traffic to cause delays. At least, I never encountered any. During my time here, I passed no more than a couple dozen non-Olympic vehicles. And two of those were pulled over near highway exits for inspections. It was one reminder of the tight security surrounding the area.
That said, I didn’t find the “ring of steel” I expected, nothing close to it. Sure, I was constantly pulling out and scanning my credential when I walked from the Main Press Center to the Olympic Park or as I entered various mountain venues. And some measures were subtle, like the electronic checkpoints: think E-ZPass-style tracking, along the road between the coast and the mountains. But there were also times when I returned to my hotel at 3 or 4 a.m. to find the guards who had to let me in asleep in their office. Nothing a few knocks on the window couldn’t solve.
On the plus side, they recognized me when I returned later in the morning on my daily run. They didn’t even ask to see my credential, just green-lighted me. Each morning, I headed to the promenade, where I ran toward the Olympic Park. The beach certainly seemed the place to be for people and stray dogs. The dogs started out as very docile, uninterested in passersby. But after a number of visitors brought them food, they became more aggressive as these Games entered the second week and, occasionally, gave chase in hopes of a nibble.
In many other ways, the beach served as a barometer of what was happening at the Olympics, what people cared passionately about. Every day, it seemed a new group of foreigners decked out in national colors strolled the promenade. On the days of big hockey games, there were plenty of Canadians. On the days of big speedskating races, the orange of the Netherlands was in full flower. I often passed NBC’s cast of TV personality characters working out along the promenade, as well as short-track speedskater Apolo Ohno and figure skater Katarina Witt running along. Not sure why this surprised me, but Witt practically pranced along on her tiptoes.
One day, I wound up running about 6 miles with Francois Drolet, the skate technician from the Canadian short-track speedskating team. Small world. It turns out Drolet is training for the 2014 Boston Marathon. So, there we were, running on the flat promenade and talking about Heartbreak Hill. I asked him how someone becomes a skate technician for Team Canada. Well, it helps if you’ve won a gold medal in the sport. Drolet did just that in the 5,000-meter relay at the 1998 Nagano Games.
It’s not every day you go for a run with a gold medalist.
But that was part of the beauty of these Games. The compact nature of the coastal cluster made the people covering, attending, and participating in the competition feel like a small town on occasion. It was easy to spot current and former Olympians running or simply hanging out around the Olympic Park. I even ran into former USSR goaltender and hockey great Vladislav Tretiak at a bus stop near the media hotels. Well, me and about 40 awed Russians.
The popular promenade also demonstrated the Russians’ ability to quickly construct whatever was needed. When it became clear people wanted to spend as much time as they could by the beach, workers built a beachfront breakfast spot in three days. From what I could tell, it served mainly eggs and offered hookahs for smoking flavored tobacco. Still, if the Russians put their minds to something, they could be surprisingly efficient.
But I know that much of what I saw was for show, that Putin put on his friendliest face for these Games and did his best to silence people who did not fall in line with his vision of the Sochi Olympics. For that reason, I respect Canadian snowboarder Michael Lambert for calling attention to the political context of these Games. Near the conclusion of a press conference for the Canadian snowboard team, Lambert asked, “No controversial questions?” Then, he proceeded to talk politics.
“I am all for the purest form of sport in which all other distractions are shed with no consideration given to anything but your own process,” said Lambert. “At the same time, to act like there aren’t a lot of other very controversial things at play here, it’s ignorant. It’s not real, it’s not a reality. It’s relaxed here because someone very powerful has told everyone to stay relaxed. There is no danger of an attack because extremely powerful people have decided that they don’t want an attack. These things are real and they still exist. We just don’t see them because we are inside the bubble.”
It’s too early to know what the non-propaganda legacy of the Sochi Games will be. And we may never really know. But strangely, the Russians may succeed where other recent Olympic hosts have failed. If the heavily Russian crowds at the beach are any indication, people enjoy visiting the area. The facades of the unfinished hotels in the mountains look like other popular European ski resorts. Once they are truly up and running, Krasnaya Polyana may prove a winter vacation draw. And at breakfast one morning, I received a brochure promoting the Russian Grand Prix, a Formula 1 race that will take place in October on a track that encircles much of the Olympic Park.
In big, bold letters, the back page reads: “See You in Sochi.”
I won’t be back. But if I learned anything from these Games of bloated ambition, it’s never underestimate the sheer force of Putin.