Rachel Blount and Chip Scoggins with updates from the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Wherever you go, there we are

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: February 21, 2014 - 7:55 AM

On my way into the Bolshoy Ice Dome on Thursday night for the US-Canada gold-medal game in women's hockey, I was chatting with a fellow reporter. The topic of Minnesota came up, and a Sochi 2014 volunteer standing near the media entrance said, '"I'm from Minnesota!"

You just cannot escape us. We've got 27 Minnesota-connected athletes at the Sochi Games, plus several coaches and staff members. A women's hockey referee. Four NBC analysts. A team doctor. The manager of the press-conference rooms at the Main Press Center. The producer of the closing ceremony. And volunteer Warren Erickson of Prior Lake, who works in the photographers' room at Bolshoy.

Erickson, 65, is volunteering at his third Olympic Games. He's serving as a photographers' assistant, assigning positions in the arena to each photographer and making sure they have the proper armbands.

He was dressed in the colorful turquoise pants and jacket that most of the 25,000 Sochi volunteers wear. A senior account executive at Canon Solutions America, Erickson also was a city council member in Prior Lake for seven years and has a grandson who plays youth hockey in Lakeville. He was especially glad to draw duty at the Olympics' main hockey rink, where he gets to watch the games at ice level.

"I grew up in Grand Forks, N.D., so I'm from hockey country,'' said Erickson, who proudly noted he shares a hometown with U.S. forwards Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux. "This is a lot of fun. I really enjoy being around other volunteers from all over the world.''

Erickson volunteered at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Games in London. Arrangements vary according to the Olympics, he said. He was required to pay his own way to get to Sochi, but once here, he has received free room and board at a village shared by volunteers and media.

Most of Erickson's co-workers are Russian. The oldest person on his team, after himself, is 23; it was 44 at the London Games and 45 at the Vancouver Games. "Most of the volunteers are college students, and about 70 percent are women,'' he said.

Creating a culture of volunteering is one of the legacies that organizers hope to realize from these Olympics. Marina Pochinok, head of volunteers for the Sochi 2014 organizing committee, said that only 3 percent of Russians did volunteer work before the Sochi committee began recruiting its workforce six years ago. "The word 'volunteer' itself was very unknown,'' she said. "We introduced the word to the Russian vocabulary.''

Erickson is among the 7 percent of the volunteers who came from 65 other countries. He's already planning to work at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and he's not going alone. One of Erickson's hobbies is salsa dancing, and he's already recruiting friends from that commuunity to join him in Rio.

Wherever you go, there we are

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: February 21, 2014 - 7:51 AM

On my way into the Bolshoy Ice Dome on Thursday night for the US-Canada gold-medal game in women's hockey, I was chatting with a fellow reporter. The topic of Minnesota came up, and a Sochi 2014 volunteer standing near the media entrance said, '"I'm from Minnesota!"

You just cannot escape us. We've got 27 Minnesota-connected athletes at the Sochi Games, plus several coaches and staff members. A women's hockey referee. Four NBC analysts. A team doctor. The manager of the press-conference rooms at the Main Press Center. The producer of the closing ceremony. And volunteer Warren Erickson of Prior Lake, who works in the photographers' room at Bolshoy.

Erickson, 65, is volunteering at his third Olympic Games. He's serving as a photographers' assistant, assigning positions in the arena to each photographer and making sure they have the proper armbands.

He was dressed in the colorful turquoise pants and jacket that most of the 25,000 Sochi volunteers wear. A senior account executive at Canon Solutions America, Erickson also was a city council member in Prior Lake for seven years and has a grandson who plays youth hockey in Lakeville. He was especially glad to draw duty at the Olympics' main hockey rink, where he gets to watch the games at ice level.

"I grew up in Grand Forks, N.D., so I'm from hockey country,'' said Erickson, who proudly noted he shares a hometown with U.S. forwards Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux. "This is a lot of fun. I really enjoy being around other volunteers from all over the world.''

Erickson volunteered at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Games in London. Arrangements vary according to the Olympics, he said. He was required to pay his own way to get to Sochi, but once here, he has received free room and board at a village shared by volunteers and media.

Most of Erickson's co-workers are Russian. The oldest person on his team, after himself, is 23; it was 44 at the London Games and 45 at the Vancouver Games. "Most of the volunteers are college students, and about 70 percent are women,'' he said.

Creating a culture of volunteering is one of the legacies that organizers hope to realize from these Olympics. Marina Pochinok, head of volunteers for the Sochi 2014 organizing committee, said that only 3 percent of Russians did volunteer work before the Sochi committee began recruiting its workforce six years ago. "The word 'volunteer' itself was very unknown,'' she said. "We introduced the word to the Russian vocabulary.''

Erickson is among the 7 percent of the volunteers who came from 65 other countries. He's already planning to work at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and he's not going alone. One of Erickson's hobbies is salsa dancing, and he's already recruiting friends from that commuunity to join him in Rio.

Crazy night at figure skating

Posted by: Chip Scoggins Updated: February 20, 2014 - 5:31 PM

SOCHI, RUSSIA -- Well, that was interesting night at figure skating.

First, the history. Adelina Sotnikova became the first Russian to win Olympic gold in women's figure skating.

I was downstairs in a hallway just off the mixed zone interviewing American Gracie Gold, who finished fourth. A few minutes later, Sotnikova came sprinting past me and another writer friend in an otherwise empty hallway in the Iceberg Skating Palace.

We quickly realized that she saw Kim Yuna' scores in the TV in the mixed zone (interview area) and knew she had won gold. She turned and ran after her, followed by a large pack of journalists.

Sotnikova turned a corner and was out of sight. We saw replays of her hugging her coach down that hall.

A few national writers who have covered figure skating a long time arrived at the mixed zone and raised questions about the judging. USA Today columnist Christine Brennan posted this story about two of the judges, including the fact that the Russian judge is married to the president of the Russian figure skating federation.

Suddenly, the mixed zone became pretty chaotic as reporters tried to figure out if this was another Olympic judging scandal.

American Ashley Wagner said she did not see either Sotnikova’s or Kim’s performance, but she criticized her sport’s ambiguity in judging.

“This sport needs people who want to watch it,” Wagner said. “People do not want to watch a sport when they see someone skate lights out and they can’t depend on that person to be the one who pulls through. People need to be held accountable. They need to get rid of the anonymous judging. There are many changes that need to come to this sport if we want a fan base that can’t depend on this sport to always be there when you need it.”

Honestly, I don't know what to believe, but the sport's checkered history invites that skepticism. This is what happens when an outcome is decided by judging.

How to cheer like a Russian

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: February 19, 2014 - 5:27 PM

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.

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