Part of the fun of the Olympics is seeing the fan culture of other nations. Some things (face paint, funny hats) are universal. Some (snacks, cheers, etiquette) are not. These Olympics have drawn fewer foreign tourists, so the crowds are even thicker with locals than usual. And while Russian sports fans share many characteristics with their American counterparts, there have been a few surprises coming from the seats in the Sochi venues.
One big difference: Russian arenas are dry. It's the law: no alcohol sold in the stadiums. You can get non-alcoholic beer, but that's it. And this is not at all popular with foreigners, including Americans. The Olympic News Service interviewed a woman from Seattle who said, "It's crazy. I don't want to sound like a lush, but it would be nice to have a beer while watching hockey.'' It also quoted a Russian fan as saying he didn't mind the rule because of the potential for his countrymen making fools of themselves on global TV. "It makes sense to not have people drunk walking around with all of the cameras here and everyone watching,'' he said.
Crowds arrive late in this country, which has been a bit of a headache for Olympics organizers. It's not unusual for arenas to be half-empty at the start of competition. Organizers have repeatedly tried to get people to come early, but this is apparently a deep-seated cultural preference that won't be easily changed.
In the hockey arenas, the chicken dance is popular here, too. But the organists also play a killer version of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody.'' Hockey also has the lame Olympic cheerleaders introduced a few years back. The ones here seem largely disinterested and somewhat rhythmically challenged.
Etiquette is all over the map. It was appalling to hear the fans at the Iceberg Skating Palace cheer loudly when German pairs skater Robin Szolkowy fell on a jump early in his program, ending the Germans' threat to pass a Russian pair for gold. The crowds at curling also were oblivious as to how to behave while watching that sport. As USA Curling executive Rick Patzke put it, curling fans observe golf etiquette, not free-throw-shooting etiquette. But the Russians had the volume at 11 all the time, screaming and hollering and stomping their feet and rattling their noisemakers whenever the Russian team touched a rock.
At several arenas, there are face-painting stations, which are very popular with kids and adults. The mascots are a huge hit, too; there are long lines of people waiting to get their pictures taken with them.
They also have the Kiss-Cam here, and it is not quite so wholesome. You know how shy Minnesotans are when that thing is pointed at them? Turn it around 180 degrees for the Russians. Some couples are very uninhibited about these very public displays of affection.
And then there are the Dutch. They are the reason why the speedskating venue is one of the most reliably fun places at any Winter Olympics. Here's a photo of a bunch of them dressed like Catholic cardinals in orange, the national color.
Today, we found out how the Russians react when their favorite team loses. Men's hockey is by far the most popular and important sport in the country, and that was the gold medal all Russians wanted. Americans fans show their disgust by booing; Europeans whistle derisively. And boy, were they whistling when the Russian hockey team lost to Finland.
Here's how two of Russia's most famous fans handled the defeat.