Sochi 2014: The View from the Ground

THE RUSSIANS HAVE GOT A FEW SURPRISES UP THEIR SLEEVES

Sochi 2014 the view from the ground
A Russian woman waits to board the train near Sochi, un-phased by the branding behind her.

“Russia goes for Olympic Gold,” reads the headline. My brother picked up the paper in London and gave me it to read on the plane. It’s a free eight-page “Sochi Special” seemingly funded by the Russian government. Put together in the shiny glass and steel building on the site of the Soviet newspaper Pravda’s old offices, its editorial line comes from the same school of truth-telling which once characterized that erm… bastion of objective reporting.

The aim is clearly to convince people in the UK that Russia is ready after its “epic seven year adventure of preparation” to be introduced to the world as “a modern, dynamic country”. But although the articles are well written, they feel like too little, too late. Last-ditch lawyers’ arguments in the court of public opinion.

Because the western press – and most of the western public – seem to have already made their mind up about these Olympics. There have been stories of corruption on an epic scale, rumours of badly built courses (and blogs by course-builders about their “shameful” treatment) and countless tales of hotels and venues still unfinished.

GUM, the massive department store which forms one side of Red Square, is hosting an Olympic sports-themed art exhibition.
GUM, the massive department store which forms one side of Red Square, is hosting an Olympic sports-themed art exhibition.

These are (we are constantly told) the most expensive Games ever, with a price tag of around 30 billion pounds (compared to 12 billion for London), allowing people to trot out all the stereotypes about newly rich Russian incompetence. And then of course there’s the issue of the oh-so-conveniently timed amnesties for people like Pussy Riot and PR-disaster that was the repressive anti-gay legislation.

It’s not just the advertisers or the government who seem to be excited about the Games. Everywhere we go, people smile and say“Sochi? Cool!”

Yep, if you’d read the majority of the coverage in the build up, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Sochi Olympics would be at best a glitzy, tasteless propaganda exercise that glamourizes a nasty regime. At worst, they’d be an abject failure, with no snow, crap courses and unfriendly conditions for the athletes.

And yet, and yet… the first thing you see when you arrive in Moscow (before you even get to passport control) are young, enthusiastic, English-speaking volunteers dressed in the Sochi 2014 uniform and looking to help guide guests through the airport.

Colin Holden, Whitelines travelling companion and the snowboard representative on the board of BSS, the sport's official governing body. And yes, that's a cheesy tourist snap.
Colin Holden, Whitelines travelling companion and the BSS snowboard director. And yes, this is just a cheesy tourist snap. It had to be done!

The adverts on the train into town are all Sochi-themed, and once you get into Moscow, banners for the Games are everywhere. GUM, the luxury department store that spans one side of Red Square, has been taken over by an exhibition of winter-sports themed art, and the ice-rink that sits in the centre of the famous plaza each winter has a Sochi theme for this season.

Nor is it just the advertisers or the government who seem to be getting excited about the Games. Everywhere we go, people smile and say “Sochi? Cool!” Waiters and taxi drivers in Moscow want to talk to us about it. Even Abdulrahman a young dude we meet from Chechnya (who you might expect would be no fan of official-dom) tells us “of course, I will be watching it. Everyone is excited about the Olympiad here.”

When this Sochi 2014 torch-bearer jumped on our trian at Krasnodar, everyone wanted a photo.
When this Sochi 2014 torch-bearer jumped on our trian at Krasnodar, everyone wanted a photo.

Having decided to catch a train south from Moscow (a journey of 1,000 miles that takes 28 hours – yes, Russia is that big!) we share a compartment with Sasha and Katya, two twenty-somethings heading south to watch whatever events they can. “It’s going to be so great,” Katya says excitedly.

And when in Krasnodar, 200 miles north of Sochi, someone gets on the train with one of the torches from the Olympic relay, the whole carriage wants to get photos with her. Even Irina, the staid middle-aged woman sitting opposite us who’s lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the separatist schism in Abkhazia, seems to think the games will be a major life event.

Even the famously grumpy Russian police seem to have been told to lighten up.

Arriving in Sochi itself, we find the whole town buzzing. The uniforms volunteers are wearing may be hideous, but the smiles are unceasingly friendly, and we watch several groups of tourists (Japanese, Canadians, Russians) being steered where they need to go. Even the famously grumpy Russian police seem to have been told to lighten up – they jokingly tell us to hide our beers if we want to drink them on the street.

Meanwhile the word from Facebook and Instagram is that the riders, who’ve already been practising on the course, are pretty excited about it too. Photos of Billy Morgan and Jamie Nicholls checking out the course, of Aimee Fuller and Ben Kilner posing in the Olympic rings, and of Seb Toots and Charles Reid heading for a traditional Russian banya suggest everyone is stoked to be there.

Well, everyone except Shaun White, who has pulled out of the slopestyle. But rumours of the course being bad are quickly quashed by other riders. Even Shaun’s withdrawal and Torstein’s unfortunate injury don’t seem to have put to much of a dampener on the positive messages coming out of southern Russia.

Sochi 2014 volunteer
A Sochi 2014 volunteer walks past the Christmas-themed window display in a gun store in Sochi… this is Russia, just cos the Olympics is on doesn’t mean random stuff stops happening.

Posting this from the brand spanking new train station in Adler, from where we’ll catch a super-fast electric train to watch the slopestyle qualifiers up the mountain tomorrow morning, I’m struck by something our host in Moscow said when we arrived.

‘With the Russians it is all or nothing’, says Olivier. ‘Whatever happens it will be big and it will be spectacular’

Olivier, a Frenchman who’s lived in the capital on and off for nearly a decade, is a sommelier by trade, but his long experience has also made him a connoisseur of Russia and the Russians. “The thing is,” he explained, “with them it is all or nothing. Russians will never do things by halves. They may be working on everything until the last minute, but they will make it happen. And whatever happens, it will be big and it will be spectacular.”

Having made it down here, and witnessed the Games fever gripping the country on every step of our lengthy trip, I’m starting to think he may be right – and the Olympic naysayers may be wrong. With two days to go until the opening  ceremony, it looks like they might pull this one out of the bag after all.

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