Sochi Olympics Report
This may have been the first Olympics held in a third world country masquerading as a global power. Early omens weren’t promising, either. On the year or so journey of the torch, it went out 44 times. There is an official protocol for reigniting it, and no, Boris, it doesn’t include your cigarette lighter. At the climax of the opening ceremonies, the five Olympic rings are always showcased, but this time, only four were lit. President Putin was in the audience, surprisingly wearing a shirt and without a dead tiger slung over his shoulder. The official motto for these Olympics was “Hot, Cold, You.” That sounds more to me like a Justin Bieber lyric than what I would expect from a nation with Russia’s literary heritage. Oh yes, and there was the recently passed anti-gay “propaganda” law. That means you can be gay as long as you don’t display it for the kiddies to see. So for God’s sake, don’t let them watch any of the men’s figure skating!
Putin spent a record $51 billion on these games, to show what a bad-ass he is. $8 billion alone went to the transportation system (the total cost of Vancouver in 2010). On opening day, some roads to out-of-the-way venues were still being paved, and trains to anywhere ran late. Another $7 billion in construction contracts went to his childhood friend and judo partner. Many hotel rooms still didn’t have the plumbing hooked up, and those that did had no hot water. Guests were cautioned not to wash with the brown water from the taps, saying it “contained something dangerous.” Toilets at the venues were two to a stall, and are unable to flush toilet paper; there’s a separate receptacle for that. Yuck. In the days just before the games, hundreds if not thousands of stray dogs were rounded up and, well, you know. The laundry service for the media center habitually lost clothes, and after the first week many reporters were running out of things to wear.
Winter games? Temperatures the first week were in the 50s and 60s, F. Snowboarders and skiers had to schuss down slopes with the consistency of a 7-11 slurpee. Usually the downhill and other ski courses are tested by 2nd tier athletes, then modified if necessary. In Sochi they sent down a couple locals, who never achieved the speeds to realize that the final jump was way too high. The athletes are supposed to be the amateurs here, not the organizers, and so much of the logistics were pure bush league. Putin spent most of the money on security, and for good reason. The breakaway Chechen Republic is only a few hundred miles away, and rebels had threatened to disrupt the games. Fortunately there were no such incidents, so maybe he was right to spend that money.
Conspiracy Theory — the French magazine L’Equipe published a report in early February that the U.S. and Russians were colluding to fix the figure skating so that Russia would win the new team event, and the U.S. would get the gold in Ice Dancing. Gosh, and both those things happened, too. But then, crooked figure skating judges have been a part of Olympic pageantry for as long as I can remember.
The U.S. doesn’t dominate like they do in the Summer games. Lindsey Vonn, arguably the best woman skier we’ve ever had, was out with injury. Carrot-topped Shaun White not only failed to threepeat in the Men’s Halfpipe, he finished a disappointing 4th. The worst debacle was with our long track speed skating team, which figured to easily win half a dozen medals. Their training venue was changed weeks before the games, and brand new skin suits (party designed by Lockheed-Martin) arrived too late to test them in competition. The team performed like they’d been spooked by it all, as if their confidence was shaken. They didn’t achieve even a top six finish. We still did very well, if you don’t count hockey. I’m sad that again we failed to medal in biathlon, a sport combining skiing and shooting. Both Olympics have shooting sports, and you would think a gun-crazy country like ours would excel in these events. I finally figured it out, though. They’re shooting at targets. If they were shooting at people, I think the Americans would sweep the medals. Speaking of sweeping, I’ve always loved Curling, which is Canada’s national sport (not hockey — you can probably win a bar bet with that). I doubt that many militant feminists are sports fans, but I wonder what they’d think of a sport that involved women frantically sweeping?
As for the Russians, always strong in winter sports, I think if they could win only one medal in these Olympics, it would be the gold in men’s hockey. It must have been a crushing blow that they didn’t even make the medal round.
TV coverage of the competitions was terrific, as they always are. Now if only we could be spared the trailer trash media interviews and background stories. Let’s find one of our athletes whose little sister has terminal leukemia, or someone whose father just died, and stick a red hot poker into the bloody wound, maybe we can squeeze out some tears. Kristin Cooper’s interview of Bode Miller, who lost his brother “Chili” last year, was one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen. He’d just won the bronze in the Super G, and NBC’s Kristin Cooper was ready with the cameras. “You’re showing a lot of emotion down here, what’s going through your mind?” That’s the set-up. Of course he’s emotional at the moment, he just won a medal, and it’s quite possible he was thinking of his brother. Cooper went in for the kill: “I know you wanted for Chili to be here. You’re standing up there at the start and you’re looking up in the sky, and it looks like you’re talking to someone. What’s going on there?” At that point Miller sunk to his knees, and NBC went back to the studio for the other commentators, leaving the camera on him for a full minute. I didn’t know whether to throw up or take a shower. I wanted to hear more about him being the oldest ever to win an alpine skiing medal, at age 36. They did mention it, but more as an afterthought.
Two of the debut sports deserve comment. I found the Snow Angel event to be tedious. But the Writing Your Name in the Snow competition was riveting. The judging is comparable to figure skating, in that there is a judge for each of several elements; script design and execution, style, legibility, and with bonus points for distance. Most entrants go with a cursive style, as there are deductions for marks between the letters. The athletes hydrate all day and must hold it in, because failure to complete both fore and surname results in disqualification. It really gives a new definition to “streaming live.” And congratulations on winning the gold, to Seattle’s own Sebastian Machowalski! As yet there are no plans for a women’s competition.
All this aside, the athletes were superb, as always. They are what it’s all about. One story from the first week illustrates the Olympic spirit. Roberto Carcelan was the first Peruvian in the Winter games, in a 15k cross country ski event. He’d broken two ribs in training ten days before, but was determined to compete for his country. The winner was Swiss skier Dario Cologna, but he didn’t go right to the media for interviews. Instead, he waited at the finish line for half an hour to congratulate Carcelan, who finished dead last. The games celebrate not just competition but the connectedness of humanity. It’s a kind of global consciousness, the antithesis of the global corporate state. Ironically, you’ll never find a more ostentatious parade of corporate logos anywhere.
So thank you, Sochi, and Mr. Putin (you know you’re gay, right? It’s okay, really) In spite of everything, it was a good show all around, Russia won the most medals, and I’m sure the Russian people are happy, and very proud of their athletes.. Unless you count hockey.