SOCHI, Russia — Spiderman, Hello Kitty, Snow White, a pirate, a bear with balloon animals, and two cossacks on stilts came to the party at Gorki Plaza. Or, at least, what was meant to be a party.
The group danced to a mix of American pop hits, performing mostly for security guards and a few puzzled tourists fresh from the ski slopes. There were no large crowds to be found on the plaza up in Krasnaya Polyana, which seemed designed to be a major gathering place in the mountains.
It was not clear why the cast of characters on the plaza seemed like good ambassadors for the Sochi Olympics. But much of what goes on at these Winter Games defies good explanation. Forget the so-called “ring of steel,” the Sochi Olympics exist in a bubble of quirky, often incongruous activity.
Olympians compete at impressive, modern venues while fans enjoy spring weather and uniquely Russian-style entertainment (more on that later). Memorable moments come in the most unpredictable places, such as Russian hockey legend Vladislav Tretiak appearing at a bus stop near the Black Sea Thursday morning and quickly being mobbed by fans.
For all the concerns about safety and negative reports about costs, corruption, and accommodations, a healthy number of foreign fans adopted an adventurous, determined spirit and made their way to Sochi. Once here, they appeared to embrace the Games’s quirky, awkward, sometimes absurdist charm and pushed aside any worries about terrorist attacks.
“We wanted to experience the Olympics,” said Kristin Caplice of Boston. “Of course, after the Boston Marathon bombings and the association with Dagestan, it was a little bit nerve-racking at first. But we haven’t had a single worry since we’ve been here.
“But my mom was concerned and said, ‘I want proof of life every day,’ so we send a text or an e-mail.”
Somewhat ironically amid terror warnings, Caplice credited an American flag with improving her first visit to the Olympics.
“The first few days, we did not have our American flag,” she said. “The minute we brought our American flag out, people started coming out of the woodwork and wanted to be friendly and practice their English. We’ve had probably two dozen people want to take pictures with us.
“I feel this flag has made a difference in terms of the Olympic spirit. We’re finally feeling it.”
The takeaway: Always expect the unexpected at these Games. Good, bad, and bemusing.
Crowds are thinner
Inside the Sochi Olympic bubble, a knife store is open in a new mountain mall despite threats of terrorism, crepes with caviar are big sellers at food stands, a water-and-light display choreographed to “Swan Lake” precedes medal ceremonies, jazz musicians jam in front of the Iceberg Skating Palace, and a disco bar/steakhouse serves customers near a media hotel cluster.
A week into the competition, it remains hard to pin down the vibe of the Sochi Olympics.
In large part, that is due to a combination of security measures and the difficulties foreigners faced obtaining Russian visas. While plenty of international flag-waving visitors make their way through the Olympic Park with special spectator IDs, the crowds are noticeably thinner than they were at other Olympics, and they are largely Russian.
On a sunny, 60-degree day, fans had plenty of room to maneuver among the coastal venues, with the only lines at ticket offices and in front of an Olympic rings sculpture that served as a photo backdrop.
“With the visas and spectator passes, there was a lot of work to get here,” said Roseanne Penner of Calgary, who came with her two sons. “But it was certainly worth the work. It’s been fun.
“Traveling with kids feels great. I don’t feel like I’m having to hang on to them for dear life. The only thing I’ve had to fear is that my Russian is too lousy.”
With fewer people, organizers are working hard to pump up the atmosphere at the Olympic Park during the day, piping in music and spreading performance artists throughout the area: musicians, clowns, mascots, entertainers dressed in traditional Russian clothing. The more unusual entrants were men dressed as rabbits on stilts and women marching around the medals plaza in a drumline.
“I was in China [for the 2008 Beijing Olympics], and there were a lot more people, but I feel it was more subdued there,” said Jeff Steffen of Park City, Utah. “They’re really doing it up here with less people.”
Hockey is rockin’
In the mountains, near the Olympic Park equivalent in Gorki Plaza, there was more of a ghost-town feel, as unfinished hotels, empty restaurants, and a yet-to-fully-open mall dotted the landscape. A woman walked around with an advertisement for a restaurant located on an even less-beaten path, trying to drum up business and giving directions in Russian to anyone who would listen.
The Gorky Gorod mall, with its “opening soon” signs plastered outside, appeared to be at about 30 percent occupancy, with outposts for Cinnabon, Adidas, and Reebok open near lingerie and children’s clothing stores. At the main entrance, a trickle of curious shoppers passed through a metal detector as an apologetic security guard kept saying, “Sorry about this.” He seemed to be speaking about more than the small inconvenience of the metal detector.
But there was nothing to apologize for with the brand-new venues in the Olympic Park.
A packed Iceberg Skating Palace cheered the men’s short-track speedskating competition Thursday afternoon, and it was a raucous affair. When American J.R. Celski faced Russian Semen Elistratov in Heat 6 of the men’s 1,000-meter semifinal, fans broke into an impromptu chant of “Ros-si-ya.” It was another display of national pride at the venue that also hosts figure skating, a competition that prompted the same chant.
Like all the impressive coastal venues, the Iceberg created an intimate feel for spectators, with great sightlines from every tier.
That was also true inside Shayba Arena, where hockey takes place. At Wednesday’s US-Canada women’s game, the place was packed with 4,812 fans and about a dozen cheerleaders. The women waved blue pompoms from the steps between seating sections.
In many ways, it felt very much like an NHL game, and the same could be said for the Bolshoy Ice Dome next door. That was in no small part because the San Jose Sharks director of event presentation was on site to make the experience off the ice as entertaining as it was on the ice.
On Thursday, the US men faced Slovakia in their Olympic tournament opener in the cozy confines of Shayba Arena with a crowd of 4,119, though without any cheerleaders in sight.
While there have been empty seats at some arenas — noticeably the uppermost corners of the grandstands at some freeskiing and snowboard events — and criticism of the halfpipe conditions and the slopestyle and downhill courses, fans who made the trek to the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park and other mountain venues had no complaints.
“Everywhere we’ve gone, there’s been a cool atmosphere,” said Beth Porreca of Baltimore. “We were at ski jumping last night and it was probably one of the best atmospheres we’ve seen. There was a lot of energy in the crowd.
“They had a couple DJs who were trying to get people really excited about the event. They did a really good job of making it fun and, as they called it, ‘The biggest disco in Sochi.’ ”
Sometimes, unexpectedly, a cool atmosphere can be found far away from the competition venues. Denise Shearer and James Trivoli of Pittsburgh ventured to a local bar Wednesday night and were happily surprised by what they found there. All televisions were tuned to the pairs figure skating final, with Russians the medal favorites.
“These old men, 70 years old, were cheering for the skaters,” said Shearer. “In the States, you would never catch a bar of men watching figure skating.”
Added Trivoli, “Anytime any country was skating and they fell, the men would go, ‘Ooooh, ahhh.’ They were into it. It was awesome.”
The venues look even more impressive when lit up. On the roof of the Ice Dome, LED lights illuminate the flags of the countries that are playing inside.
The Games feel the most energetic at night, particularly during the medals ceremonies that take place at 8 p.m. at the medals plaza.
In Russian and English, two masters of ceremonies pump up the crowd, telling them that the day’s “Olympic heroes” are on their way to the stage. Spotlights circle the sky and move around the stage. A water fountain dances in synch to strains of “Swan Lake.” And the largest crowds gather to watch video highlights of the day’s competition, with each medal winner shown before the hardware is presented.
The ceremonies take place on a large stage that dwarfs setups from recent Olympics. National flags of the medal winners wave in refreshingly cool night air on spotlighted flagpoles and throughout the crowd.
Under the bright lights, the Sochi Olympics actually shine, all the quirks and absurdities cast into the shadows as spectators enjoy the celebration of sports that brought them here in the first place.
Shira Springer can be reached at email@example.com.