SOCHI, RUSSIA – About two days after arriving in Sochi, I unlocked the door to my room at the media village and turned the handle. Snap. Broken in two, and the Olympics hadn’t even started yet.
So this is where it begins, I thought. Weeks before our group left for Russia, I had been checking on our medical insurance, making sure it covered emergency evacuation and repatriation. Friends already in Sochi had told me the water was undrinkable, the hot showers nonexistent, the bus routes endless loops of hell. Friends in the Twin Cities who usually ask if they can stow away in my suitcase for the Olympics instead told me they would pray for our safety.
Now, I’m a full-fledged member of the Cult of the Five Rings. The Olympics are my Shangri-La, my Disneyland, my Brigadoon; 17 days of wonderment, a world party staged around unforgettable sports moments. I didn’t want to believe the Sochi Games would live up — or down — to the predictions that they would be the Fearful Olympics, or the Repressive Olympics, or at the very least the Joyless Winter Games.
And guess what? They weren’t.
Our accommodations were Spartan but cozy, highlighted by a smiling breakfast crew that served up Russian blini crepes with sour cream and the cherry jam that is a Caucasus Region favorite. The buses ran like Swiss watches on direct routes that magically opened up days before the Games began. (The drivers, though, might have been the biggest health hazard in Sochi; they thought nothing of backing up 300 yards on a busy freeway when they missed an exit.)
The Russian security forces that protected the Ring of Steel around Sochi managed to do their work unobtrusively. At the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese parked a tank outside the Main Press Center; in Sochi, I barely noticed the security measures until a late night at the figure-skating venue. At 2 a.m., a large unit of police and military did a full sweep, turning loose a pack of bomb-sniffing dogs and using mirrors to check under every table and seat. I didn’t need to see them again to feel well-protected.
The volunteers were friendly and efficient. The venues were beautiful, the crowds exuberant, the Olympic Park atmosphere merry and the mountain scenery without peer.
Inside the Ring of Steel, these Olympics unfolded as they always do, in a bubble where you can learn a Dutch speedskating song one minute and talk to an Albanian in a U.S. team sweater the next. On a breathtaking gondola ride to the cross-country and biathlon course, two young Russian women chatted in their native language; then a Chris Isaak song came over a loudspeaker, and they immediately began singing along in English. On a walk to a hockey arena, a German reporter and an American one managed to have a 15-minute conversation despite knowing about six words in common.
My love affair with the Olympics does not blind me to their faults. I know that like Shangri-La and Disneyland and Brigadoon, they are an illusion that will last only 17 days, and they cannot change hearts that do not want to be changed.
I worry about the people being persecuted in Russia for being different or expressing dissent. I worry about the future of the sweet stray dogs. I worry that the workers who labored to build the venues will not receive the payment they still are fighting for.
But as any athlete will tell you, hope is the fuel of the Olympic flame. A couple of days before the Games ended on Sunday, I returned to my village room at 4 a.m.
The door handle was fixed. One last little gift from the Winter Games that defied expectations, and one final surprise from an Olympic Games that was full of them.