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At Russia House, athletes and fans can connect

SOCHI, Russia — They wear Russian-flag face paint and jerseys emblazoned with Russia’s double eagle emblem, large Russian flags draped over their shoulders, and tiny Russian flags protruding from white-blue-and-red tiaras. Their allegiance is not in question.

These Russian fans teem by the thousands each day to enter a cavernous building in Sochi’s Olympic Park and relive the country’s sports history and meet with the athletes themselves.

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It’s an opportunity Russians have never had to immerse themselves in the Olympic experience, and it’s the embodiment of a new ideology of the country’s Olympic Committee: that fans and athletes should be close; that ordinary Russians feel like more than just spectators.

“This place was created especially so that each fan who comes to Sochi can feel like he is a member of the team,” Alexander Zhukov, president of the Russian Olympic Committee, told reporters at the opening of the giant exhibit.

It’s a far cry from the days when Russian Olympic athletes were isolated from the people, showered with privileges by the Communist leadership that ordinary fans could only dream about. Or the lean post-Soviet years, when many Russian Olympians were distant in a different way, choosing to live abroad to train.

And it fits in with President Vladimir Putin’s larger agenda for these Games: that they be a source of, and inspiration for, national pride.

Mikhail Mordasov

In Olympic Park’s House of the Fan, spectators can relive Olympic experiences with toys such as the 3D helmet-mounted camera.

On Saturday afternoon, visitors had a get-together with Angelika Timanina and Alexandra Patskevich, synchronized swimming gold medalists from the 2012 Summer Games. They took target practice with an electronic rifle designed to simulate the weapon used in the biathlon. They listened to commentary from athletes about what it’s like to sled down an icy track at 80 miles an hour, accompanied by 3D helmet-mounted cameras that drive home the sensation.

A station that allowed fans to pose in an authentic jersey of Soviet hockey legend Vladislav Tretiak warmed the spirits of Yevgeny Luchinsky, who had traveled more than 2,500 miles from the far northern Yamalo-Nenets region, where temperatures sometime dip below minus-50 Fahrenheit, to attend the Sochi Games.

“I’m going to hockey, I’m going to curling, I’m going to figure skating,” gushed Luchinsky, dressed top to bottom in Russian white-blue-and-red. “I hope we win medals in all of them.”

As of Monday, the home team’s medal haul of 18 was tied for the lead with the United States.

Luchinsky spoke Saturday before Russia’s crushing shootout loss to the American hockey team, a defeat that had local fans shaking their heads and predicting an Olympic hockey fizzle.

“Hope dies last,” Luchinsky said.

The House of the Fan is geared toward the Russian spectator, with skis and hockey sticks and other memorabilia left by Olympic champions, and pictures and information about the more than 200 members of the Russian Olympic team.

But, like nearly everything else inside the Olympic Park, it’s also friendly to foreigners. Most staff speak at least some English, and a sports quiz video game is bilingual, as is a station that lets visitors take a fitness test to establish whether they are in good, bad, or average shape for their age.

But the focus of the House of the Fan is the Russian team, with photo opportunities, discussions, and victory celebrations with athletes.

“We wanted everyone who comes to this place to know their faces, to know their names,” said Anna Kozhushner, a spokeswoman for the house. “It’s important people feel the team is part of your country, and they’re living next to you.”

Russian A-list celebrities have made appearances, as has Prince Albert II of Monaco, who lent his collection of Olympic torches from 17 Games, and Putin, who posed for pictures with nervous-looking children. The gently paternalistic vibe didn’t end there. At each exhibit, emblems painted on the floor suggests the best place from which to shoot a picture, and the best place to stand. (Russians being Russians, they generally ignored the suggestions.)

Kozhushner said 10,000 people a day view the exhibit, more than a few of them repeat visitors. And the House of the Fan rewards fans who return. Each time they leave, they get a bag with pins, refrigerator magnets, tie pins, and a Russian flag.

“We only have one chance to put on an Olympics,” Kozhushner said. “We wanted to put on a good show.”

David Filipov can be reached at David.Filipov@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidfilipov.
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