The first time I came to Russia the biggest cultural difference I identified was that no one smiled, at least not without a huge amount of encouragement. I asked the fixer who was looking after us why no one returned my smiles of excitement, a tool I regularly use to indicate that I come in peace. He explained that “In Russia only two types of people smile: idiots and rich people – and rich people don’t walk on the street.”
I arrived in Sochi at 3am on Sunday morning ready to resume my role as the village idiot, but instead what I found was an army of volunteers and staff armed only with smiles and a desperate need to help you in some way. It was in short, the opposite of what most big media outlets would have you believe is happening in Russia.
There is of course a huge amount of security here, but in terms of their visual presence it is no more than I saw in either Turin or Vancouver. In most cases security forces are hidden, my personal favourite so far being the white-netted snipers’ nests that pop up every now and again in the trees along the side of the road. There are mine sweepers on the mountains, security guards on each floor of our hotel and 8ft high steel fences surrounding the slopestyle course. There is a feeling that this is all for our protection; as part of the games we are welcomed rather than suspected, which has not always been the case in the past and it has come as an unexpected surprise.
My personal favourite are the white-netted snipers’ nests that pop up every now and again in the trees along the side of the road
On Monday we went straight up to the ‘Extreme Arena’ in the hope of getting a glimpse of the slopestyle course. Inside the venue we were welcomed by all the staff we met and furnished for the first time in my Olympic experience with the Green Bib, the holy grail of access that allows media onto the course. Having heard the course was big, having the right pass to get up close and personal with it, pace it out and then actually be able to talk to the riders, coaches and techs about how it was riding was manna from heaven.
On top of all these positive turns, I have also been basking in the feeling of not being alone at the Games. Usually I’m the only snowboarder in the BBC, but with Tim Warwood joining me we have been able to wander around day and night rehearsing set pieces of commentary, getting gossip from the riders and battling each other with our knowledge of riders and their runs. I’m not going to claim that it’s been hard work, it’s been a dream come true, but either way I know that being allowed to saturate ourselves in snowboarding will definitely be reflected in the commentary.
Well I mentioned gossip there so let’s get stuck in…. First up the course: take offs were bumpy on Monday, they hadn’t been raked or had the cat over them properly so everyone felt a bit loose on take off. That was fixed last night and everyone is now in agreement that it is damn near perfect. The actual size of the jumps wasn’t outrageous, they had just been cut cleverly to make them look bigger for TV and once everyone realized that things calmed down. Sage Kotsenberg’s line on Twitter said it best for me: “Relax, course is good here, jumps need slight adjustment to match pop with landings”.
Torstein’s collarbone broke on a spin onto a rail, so was nothing to do with the kickers. The rails are slow, but mainly because they haven’t been ridden in yet. Jamie Nicholls took a love tap on the back of the head after trying a hardway 270 onto one of the down bars but landed heavily, flexing the board so he stuck. He was happy though and left with Niall, the team doc, saying that he had his run down and was really happy. It’s worth saying at this stage that Shaun White follows Jamie almost everywhere and in Tim’s words ‘You keep your friends close and your enemies closer’.
Everyone is now in agreement that it is damn near perfect
The rails are going to be very important here as they are super technical and each section is really close, so you have to have your rails on lock, to the extent that it could be as much about rails as it is the triples in the final.
The big jumps aren’t intimidating: amongst the women, long time advocate of equal size kicker rights Spencer O’Brien took a decent hit yesterday off one of the big dogs, but she walked away relatively unscathed. Jenny is looking very tidy across the course and I got a surge of excitement watching her finish today’s practice with her game face on – she was focused and confident. We all know Jenny eats big booters for breakfast and this course definitely plays to her strengths.
In other news, Johnnie Balfour, the Ski and Snowboard Cross shaper who wrote the first viral blog on conditions here, has left Russia after his blog caused a stir. I talked to David Ny, the designer and head shaper of the course today, and he said Johnnie had left of his own volition and that he had been naïve to think that he could globally slag off his employers and not face some kind of dressing down. I am inclined to agree with David, but at the same time the speed at which the resort and facilities are changing is phenomenal. A lot of the valley looked like a building site on Sunday, but today (Tuesday) it looks like a cross between Chamonix and Euro Disney.
My verdict so far is that the Russian’s are putting their heart and soul into these Games, and in the absence of any real news (think the Vancouver riots) journalists are being forced to make mountains out of molehills. So far the build-up has been my favourite of any Olympics, but I am heavily biased because slopestyle looks like it is going to be insane.
See you early tomorrow morning for men’s and women’s quali’s…