Running up to, and in the first week of competition it became popular culture to bash Russia, and deride the Sochi Olympic Games. With the popular twitter account @SochiProblems, the world has been relishing stories about double-toilets, faulty doorknobs, an Olympic Ring fail, a $51 billion price-tag and anything else a bully might find to pick on someone that’s more awkward than himself.
More seriously, stories of corruption, abuse to stray dogs and concerns over Russia’s “gay propaganda” legislation have taken focus away from the Games and squarely on President Vladimir Putin, his government, and Russian society.
Mid-way through the Games, the rhetoric has faded as people have become distracted by the successful and entertaining event itself. As it turns out, Russia is an interesting place, and they’ve organized a great Olympics.
I travelled to Russia twice last year on Olympic business – on one of those occasions I was invited to run a leg of the Olympic Torch Relay.
I was sent some locations where I could run the relay and scanned the list for major cities – Moscow, St. Petersburg, Sochi – none. Then, I decided to go the other way. Pointing my finger in the middle of the map of Russia I looked for the most remote location and found the town of Khanty-Mansiysk.
With a population of about 80,000, the sub-arctic location is described as “the storefront of Siberia,” an administrative centre for Russia’s booming oil district – though no oil reserves were adjacent to the town itself. There are also some sport connections: with a biathlon stadium, Khanty-Mansiysk has hosted World Cup ski events and is even the home to a professional hockey team in its 5,500 seat Ice Palace. In 2010 the town hosted the World Chess Olympiad.
In case I wasn’t completely convinced that I was a little off the map, when I arrived at the two-gate airport of the district, a Norwegian business-person who travelled there frequently asked why I had come to the middle of nowhere.
Then he repeated with emphasis, “…and trust me – this IS the middle of nowhere.”
But what a perfect place to immerse myself in genuine Russian culture.
The day prior to the torch relay was what seemed to be a normal snowy and chilly November day in the Siberian town. People travelled to work, children played outside of schools, mothers were buying groceries and the local six-room museum was closed as it does every Tuesday. Imagine!
As part of their day-to-day lives, locals were also likely dealing with their own domestic issues and concerns – just as we all do.
I had struggles of my own. The average person in this remote region has little need to speak English, and my Russian is non-existent, so there was that language barrier. My hotel accommodations were a little different than I was used to, but the need for perseverance should be expected when traveling far from home.
The municipal government declared the following day a civic holiday honouring the arrival of the Olympic flame so as many people as possible could enjoy the spectacle – and they did. The town transformed overnight and thousands revelled at the opportunity to enjoy a piece of the Games, first hand, even if four hours from Sochi by air.
Once I donned my torchbearer uniform I belonged. It was amazing how a mutual passion for sport built a bridge spanning over 8000 kilometers.
When I joined my group of torchbearers the language challenge began, my name was written on documents with Cyrillic letters and when mentioned in a roll call it was spoken in Russian – I was oblivious. It turned out I was the only foreigner in the group, and upon noticing the issue a volunteer immediately came to my aid and taught me how to read and say my name in Russian!
As I carried the lit torch to the entrance of the town’s beloved biathlon venue, people cheered me on – their thoughts focused on welcoming the Olympic Games to their nation while other domestic concerns were fleeting, if just for a moment.
Later, people jammed into the Ice Palace to celebrate the lighting of the community cauldron. The last leg of the torch relay passed alongside giant statues of woolly mammoths and the final torchbearer was pulled into the arena on a sleigh by a reindeer. What else could I have expected? Different, but good.
Then, with jubilant crowds dispersing and the sun setting into a cold Siberian night – I found myself at the edge of the town without transportation back to my hotel. I approached a police officer, but lacking a mutual language I had to mime my awkward predicament and ask for a taxi. It didn’t seem like any taxis were coming so the officer led me to the nearby street where he began pulling over random cars, chatting with them briefly and then finally motioning me over to the door of an aging domestic vehicle with a single male driver. I had only moments to decide whether to get into a strange car in an even stranger environment – or freeze.
It was at that moment I remembered that while I was completely out of my element and comfort zone, I was still wearing my torchbearer uniform.
The driver seemed quite excited so I stepped in and handed him the address of my hotel. We couldn’t talk but did share some words.
“Russian Vodka” he said with a smile, trying to break the ice with a universal phrase (really, I couldn’t make this up.)
We exchanged some more misunderstood chatter before arriving at the hotel where he refused any amount of rubles I tried to pay. He smiled and waved as he drove off, emanating warmth on the otherwise cold night.
At the opening ceremonies in Sochi last week IOC President Thomas Bach all but derided major world leaders for trying to hijack the Olympic stage to convey their political agendas. He told the world that the athletes are the real ambassadors and were all that mattered.
Casting some perspective, it’s the athletes who have trained a good portion of their lives to put their dreams on display for the pride of their nations and the enjoyment of sport fans everywhere. If the Olympics are used as a political platform, it is on their backs, leveraging their sweat and tears unjustly and for an unrelated issue.
It is Sochi and Russia, fairly chosen by an international body of representatives from sport, politics and even royalty, that prepared for the Games – delivering an event that has so far lived up to all of the outrageous promises made seven years ago.
And it is average Russians, just like those who were celebrating the torch relay hundreds of kilometers away in Khanty-Mansiysk, who are the emotional stakeholders in this once-in-a-generation event.
While there is but one Vladimir Putin and a handful of his associates, there are about 145 million Russians who are working to build a nation that is just over 20 years old. They are our hosts – and if the $51 billion spent is rife with corruption, they’re the victims. If we perceive human rights abuses, they’re living with them.
For those discouraged by unfamiliar bathroom accommodations, non-potable tap water or a different set of rules than they are governed by at home – the Olympic journey, or travel in general, is not for them.
Sochi has been delivering an outstanding Games with first-class sport venues, enjoyable events, incredible photo and broadcast images and stories that will be forever remembered. Russia, with thousands of volunteers and understated hospitality, has helped spread Olympism.
Although there was a monumental price tag, it paid for one of the most compact set of venues and plans in Winter Olympic Games history. Along with that, a legacy of volunteerism and Olympic dreams for the next generation of a new Russia makes the value of the Games – priceless.
The Olympics won’t solve all of our international disagreements – they’re not intended to. In Sochi, LGBT advocates won’t get the comfort they seek; environmentalists will remain unappeased, and that BBC reporter will have to survive the night without a landline and Internet. But the experience, and sport, will help build bridges and create tolerance for the future.
I’ll leave you with one last anecdote.
After arriving at an airport in Moscow last year I entered a taxi with a driver who was pleasant but couldn’t speak a word of English making it difficult for me to even describe my destination.
However to my surprise, this driver was wearing a Team Canada hockey cap, so wonderfully out of context. After all, the Russia-Canada hockey rivalry dates back to the Cold War when East-West political agendas were extrapolated to the ice where it reached its pinnacle at the historic 1972 Summit Series – the two physically largest nations in the world stopped to watch. Possibly a national sports rivalry with the most at stake ever in history, to support the opponent would practically (and maybe actually) amount to treason.
I drew attention to his hat trying to express my approval – but he didn’t understand. However the word ‘hockey’ seemed to strike a chord with him and thus opened the door to the international language of hockey. He said some words, then I heard “Crosby” – we both smiled. It was followed with “Ovechkin”, and he really became animated. Showing his age, he also spoke of the classic era – “Tretiak,” I heard.
I never learned why he was wearing the Team Canada hat; it was clear he was Russian – but it allowed us to communicate during what would otherwise be a dreary drive.
Putin might have political reasons for seeing Russia win the men’s hockey gold – but Russians? They just love hockey.
And they love hosting the Olympic Games.