My Sochi Fan Experience
After traveling all night you would think I would have been exhausted. Thoughts of past Olympic experiences kept playing out in my head while I vibrated in my seat in anticipation. Tired eyes opened wide as I saw the massive Olympic Park from the air for the first time. It was highlighted by the Olympic flame glowing bright from the center of it all. Chills. My excitement showed as I passed through customs with a smile that was contagious enough to make the very stern, and very Russian female customs agent reciprocate a smirk – ever so slightly.
I had arrived. Sochi 2014. Let’s do this.
Leading up to this point my excitement was replaced by anxiety. Recent security concerns had made us, like many, rethink our trip. Normally I don’t let such things get to me but the daily warnings about suicide bombings and “not when but where” as well as avoiding lineups and public transportation (umm how?) was taking its toll – especially on Erin. She was not thrilled about the recent events. Staying on a ship in a room with no windows didn’t seem to help. Still I couldn’t help but be excited. It was to be my 3rd Winter Olympics in a row and meant a lot to me. Even though my head was filled with everyone else’s (the media) bad experiences so far with brown water, unfinished hotel rooms, and stray dogs, I was determined to make up my own mind about the host city. With this clean slate I collected my bags and headed for the information desk. There I met Philip Pritchard, the keeper of the Stanley Cup. Well played Sochi. Next I was met with smiles by helpful volunteers. Off to a good start. The only bad experience by this point was listening to the people in line behind me complain about the brief wait. Seriously dude if this is causing grief you’re in for stressful week.
It Was Not Vancouver
Let me just start off by saying this was not Vancouver 2010. I may be bias about Vancouver as I worked for those games and live in that city but seriously, we held one helluva party. You couldn’t walk two feet downtown without having your hand slapped (in a good way) and the sheer volume of people smiling warmed the hearts of our country and the world beyond. Could things have been easier for fans in Sochi? Absolutely. Could things have been more fun? Of course. What we had to keep in mind was we were in Sochi and it was Russia’s games. From the locals we were able to interact with we were told, more or less, it is what it is. With a shrug of the shoulders they would say “it’s Sochi” or “it’s Russia” and that would be that. In their view the games were a smash (although pricey) and they were very proud.
So when I was told by the cheerful volunteer at the airport that I was lucky to be staying at the Sochi seaport and it was “only a five minute walk” from the train station I should have known that it meant “Good fucking luck finding it.” Still we were pleasantly surprised when we went to pay for the train ride into town and were quickly told by an attendant (who appeared out of nowhere) that all Olympic related travel on the train was free. Thank you out of work magician who is clearly volunteering at the Olympics in an effort to get their career back on track. Thank you.
This free ride didn’t make up for the following hour we spent searching for the seaport and this “5 minute” route. We chatted up a couple guys from the Netherlands who, like many others, were bumped from their Adler accommodations (next to the coastal cluster) and were moved to the same ship as us in Sochi. They too were told that the port was a “five minute walk” from the train station. Once we arrived in Sochi we headed out armed with a poorly labeled Olympic supplied map and no cell service. Conveniently there were large signs pointing out various Olympic related sites every block or so. Not so conveniently the seaport would be found on one sign but not the next. Obviously this made the 5 minute trip confusing. The fact that it was five in the morning and dark out didn’t help. Fortunately there were plenty of security and police officers around. Unfortunately everyone that we talked to either did not understand or pointed us in a different direction. With 3 massive cruise ships holding thousands of visitors you think this wouldn’t have been a new question. After an hour of following signs that led nowhere and being turned around more times than, well a lost tourist in Sochi, we arrived at the terminal. There we were told our room was not ready and “maybe” check back at 11. This was okay with us as we didn’t expect to get a room until 3 PM anyway. We did however expect to be able to store our luggage which now we were told we couldn’t. Blarg. I then asked the terminal information about getting some food. I was kindly pointed to vending machines on either side of the building. Double blarg. So there we waited, stomachs rumbling on a bench next to a janitor that couldn’t seem to keep his finger out of his nose all while construction workers put the finishing touches on the new building… with jackhammers.
It’s Russia. Go with it.
Once 11 AM rolled around we found out that we were able to get onto the boat but not into a room until 3 as previously expected. Of course. At least we were on the ship where we could get a decent meal. Not so much. The small onboard coffee shop was out of everything on the menu except for a few sad looking salads and stale cinnamon buns slathered with whipped cream. Fine. I decided to chalk this up to the fact that we were on a cruise ship but would later find being out of menu items was a trend in Sochi. At times it felt like it was a way to show that there was more than grey stale food available. Of course we had a few amazing meals in Sochi and I will get to that, its just that we had to go out of our way to find it.
When we finally did get into our tiny but cheap cabin we crashed. Hard. Not really sleeping in the last 36 hours was taking it’s toll. Only getting three hours sleep in a room with no windows only made things worse. Nevertheless we were up and heading out for our first night of events highlighted by Canada vs. Austria in hockey. We arrived at the park groggy but ready for that experience that can only be found at the Olympics. Instead we were greeted with a long walk. The Olympic Park was huge. Ridiculously huge. After dragging our beyond exhausted selves past numourus sponsor run buildings we arrived at the Olympic flame – the center of the park. What we found felt empty and lacking in energy. We decided that this was due to the fact that the size of the grounds didn’t make for a very energetic environment. It was not the streets of downtown Vancouver. This was Sochi. We shrugged it off over a couple of beers before heading inside the impressive Bolshoy arena. Once inside I came to realize my (and many others) biggest pet peeve about the games in Russia – No alcohol served inside the venues. WTF. This led to my second realization of the night ‐ hockey is really boring, or at least a Canada vs. Austria blow out. Again lack of sleep was not helping. Nevertheless we left the game victorious and headed out to celebrate but again found very quiet Olympic Park. It was odd but decided again to give Sochi the benefit of the doubt and agreed it was early in the week still and it was after the last event of the night. Still though, I couldn’t help but feel a bit cheated. I pulled out my phone to register my disgust on the internets only to find my it was still searching for service.
The massive park, of course, was not without its charm or plus side. For one, no other Olympics has been so compact. You just had to get there. Once inside you felt safe and were free to roam from one venue to the next. Pretty amazing to be able to go to a hockey game (or two), a speed skating event, a curling match, and ice dancing in the same day. After all that you could watch the medals be awarded from the center of the park. This was impressive.
Our second visit to the park was a better experience. Perhaps because we arrived earlier in the afternoon the park was much more lively than our previous visit. People were cheering and waving flags and we were constantly being asked to pose for photos. This was the Olympic experience I was looking for. We drank with Russians, Finns, Slovaks, and Canadians before turning down an appearance on the Today Show (Sorry Al Roker) to go to the women’s 1500 meter speed skating final. This turned out to be a blowout for the Netherlands who finished 1-4 but an interesting event nonetheless.
After that it was back to chatting and cheering with others over beers before we “woo’d” our way on to my country’s national broadcaster, the CBC. It happened on our way into the Canada vs. Finland hockey game and was great as many family and friends saw that we were doing more than OK in Sochi. The game itself was great. It could’ve been the half dozen or so beer, or the comrodery with other fans, or the fact that Canada won in overtime. It was a good game and we were ready to celebrate. We went to meet up with the Canadian fans we met prior to the game for celebratory drinks only to find the beer gardens (and much of the park) were closed. What the fuck Russia? We were ready enjoy our victory and spend some rubble but instead we were herded like cattle to the trains for our hour plus trip back to Sochi. Just like that our Olympic fun came to an end.
Did I Feel Safe?
There was indeed a high‐security presence but, surprisingly, not in your face. After the bombing in Volgograd we thought our Olympic experience would be very militaristic with AK‐47s, random stops for passports checks, and lineups everywhere. Not the case. The Sochi Security did a great job of being there without being noticed. Once you cleared security at the train station Sochi, for example, you were cleared to enter the Sochi coastal cluster on the other end of the line. No additional screening required. This was a bit surprising but nice as it mitigated lines and checkpoints. Once on the train police or military personal would stroll the cars after every stop. Looking out the window along the way you could see security personnel positioned around bridges and stations patrolling 24/7. That being said obviously if somebody wanted to cause a disturbance they could have. The Sochi train station was a very busy place. Buses were lined up for both Olympic and non‐Olympic related duties and people were coming and going at all hours. If someone wanted to do something they could have however the same can be said for any event like the Olympics in any location.
The Real Sochi
Between going to the games at the park I did have a chance to see much of Sochi. Wandering the streets and boardwalks put a lot of my Sochi fan experience into perspective. Sure the bar is raised every time a city hosts such an event but should these high standards really be expected in a place where they have no place to be? Walking around town I couldn’t help but notice vacant buildings and rental space after vacant rental space. We strolled the long scenic boardwalk along the Black Sea and noticed shop after shop selling the same knockoff Olympic garbage, a few bars, and that’s it. Granted it was the middle of February in a summer vacation spot but it was also in the middle of the Winter Olympics, the biggest event Russia’s ever hosted. We kept walking looking for something to eat and found nothing. Just a summer coastal town past its prime, going about its business, Olympics or not. I did meet locals that were very proud of what Russia had achieved and very proud of the games they put on. It’s Russia and they really did achieve something great. Seriously did you see the closing ceremonies?
On our last night We were lucky enough to have dinner with a couple Russian girls who worked for the Olympic committee. They seemed to echo what we had heard all along, “It’s Russia.” Dinner with them was great and gave us a look into how warm and welcoming Russians can be once you get past the stern exterior. There are smiles behind those unwelcoming stares. Trust.
In the end we are glad we went and had our own Sochi fan experience. We did have fun. It was just that it was only as much fun as we were allowed to. No worries Sochi, you did what you said you would do. You pulled off a safe and successful Olympic games. Really, that is all you can ask.