SOCHI, RUSSIA – The doors to the train opened and three fuzzy mascots greeted visitors to downtown Sochi with hugs and high-fives Friday evening.
One was a rabbit, one a cat and one … well, still not sure what animal the third mascot was supposed to represent. But the warm welcome and buzz on the streets felt genuine in a city that's become not only an international dateline but also an international punch line in the lead-up to Friday's Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics.
Sochi bashing has consumed conversations and news coverage as flaws in the city's readiness for this massive undertaking have been exposed in gory detail. Maybe that will soften now that the Games have officially started and the focus shifts to the events and games, rather than missing doorknobs and undrinkable water.
"This is a piece of our country," said a young male on a street corner in downtown Sochi. "For Russian people it's very important, Winter Olympics, because it's our presentation of our country. It's very important for us. It's very important for young people."
The man declined to give his name, but he agreed to chat about the impact these Games will have on Sochi and Russia and whether, ultimately, this will be viewed as a positive in the long run.
A picturesque 40-minute train ride along the Black Sea separates downtown Sochi from Olympic Park. The contrast is dark between the bustling downtown and rundown sections of land in the shadows of the Olympic bubble.
Crowds filled the streets around the main train depot in downtown Friday night. Cafes and stores surround a small park in the middle of the square. A band played in a small makeshift amphitheater. Giant murals of Olympic athletes are plastered on high-rise apartment complexes.
Several cafes had televisions tuned to the Opening Ceremony, but the mood inside generally felt subdued. That wasn't the case at a ticket office at the top of the train debut.
Hundreds of people swarmed the entrance in search of Olympic tickets. Every few minutes the door would open and a few would squeeze in. That led to pushing and screaming; ultimately, security personnel stepped in to keep the peace.
Picture Black Friday at big-box stores when the doors open.
"They want Olympic tickets," a Russian officer said, explaining the chaos.
It's difficult to know how Russians truly feel about these Games, in light of the problems and total cost, reportedly at $51 billion.
The intense scrutiny took an even more bizarre twist when Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister in charge of the Olympics, accused Western media of having a bias against his country and suggested that Russia is spying on visitors in their hotel showers, the Wall Street Journal reported.
"We have surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the shower, direct the nozzle at the wall and then leave the room for the whole day," Kozak said, according to the Wall Street Journal.
A spokesman for Kozak later told the newspaper that Kozak made a mistake and that there is no surveillance in hotel bathrooms.
The Russian news agency RIA Novosti cited a poll conducted this week that found that 53 percent of Russians believe their country "did the right thing" by bidding to host the Olympics. Forty-seven percent of those who participated said the total cost of the Games was the result of corruption.
"Of course it's a lot of money," the young man in downtown Sochi said. "I don't think about it because we have oil."
He stopped and laughed for a few seconds.
"Yes, a lot of money into Sochi now," he said. "But it's the Olympic Games. We think it's OK."
A young woman who stopped only briefly expressed more skepticism. Asked if she believes the Olympics will be good for Russia and Sochi, she paused and shrugged her shoulders.
"That's hard to answer," she said. "We don't know yet."