Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sochi 2014 Olympic games

We made it! 
It has been now 3,5 years since I first moved to Moscow and at the time the Winter Olympics in Sochi seemed really far away.  In fact I never thought I would stay in Moscow that long, and I turned out to be correct.
But we made it! 3,5 years of Moscow-Cyprus ups and downs which finally led to this merry event which was a practical but also mental goal for my husband and I.
This last weekend, co-exsiting not entirely unintentionally with V-day, hubs and I landed in Sochi in the midst of the Olympic events ready to witness Russian Olympic joy and sorrows firsthand.
Hot Water sign in the hotel bathroom. Gotta love the irony
Tons of criticism leaked from the International press about the unfinished Olympic venues, hotels and the lack of basic facilities. I honestly think people don't travel enough. If the did, they will know that in big part of the world disorganization, corruption and lack of "basics" such as potable tab water are part of everyday life.  In my view in Sochi things were actually pretty good. To everyone that asked me, there was hot water and plenty of it. Also a very good breakfast in our soviet style hotel in downtown Sochi. The fact that it was sunny and 17 C spring like weather certainly contributed to the olympic mood.
view from the room at Marins Park Hotel Sochi
But since this is Russia and things in Russia are either really really good or really really bad, there were moments of frustration. Let me get to that later.
One of the definite positives about the overall organization of the Games was the transportation. The Russians know their trains as much as they know their subway which in Moscow transports nearly 10M commuters a day!
Free of charge brand new trains were running every 10 minutes between Sochi, Adler and the rest of the villages around. In peak hours it was a bit crowded, but also great opportunity to strike a conversation with fellow spectators and feel the atmosphere.
And what an atmosphere that was. Seeing the Olympic fire for the first time made my my heart skip a beat. Huge beautiful futuristic buildings around, palm tree sand snowy mountains, and the mighty sun. It looked like a scene from Elysium.

Since we had limited amount of time, our choice of events was very much focused on skating where the Dutch had the most chances to win medals. The first competition we saw was 1500 m Men's speed skating.
Speed-skating is a very strategic sport and has a lot to do with psychology which is one of the reasons I like it. It's in a way sort of running on ice and since I am big on running, one more reason to enjoy watching it so much. It was a rather dramatic event for the Netherlands.
Each country is allowed to have no more than 4 skaters and of course the Dutch had 4. The first 3 guys started earlier on and did very well, but towards the end there outperformed. The forth Dutch skater, Koen Verweij was the last chance for a medal for the Dutch team. And man, did he give Everything in that race! He was focused, fast, determined and just set straight for the gold. The final result was at the screen and yes, he was first. And then.... the disappointment came. With 0,0003 of a second he was apparently slower that then Brodka, the Polish skater. I felt very sad for Verweij. As a sportsman he must have trained his entire life for this event and knowing you have missed by this incredibly small difference. Sometimes I feel that technology progress such as producing a device that can determine speed in such a precision doesn't actually do us any good when we can't act from a purely human perspective and just admit that the Pole and the Dutch both deserved that medal just as much.

Understandably Verweij was really upset when the announcement was made. For a while he sat alone on the side of the ice ring until he got a warm hug from another Orange-clad member of the team. He was soon surrounded. I can imagine that everyone shared the same sentiment. 1/3000 of a bloody second!!! Anyway, Koen manned up and showed his brave face at the flower ceremony that followed immediately after the race. I didn't see him next day at the Women's 1500 m despite that most of the others skaters was there to support the ladies. We are all human after all.

After the race we met an old friend of mine, American lady living in Moscow who volunteered at the Games. It was great to see an insider's view and hear some great stories. Also to remember the our marathon on ice we ran together in Siberia on the Baikal lake of which I mentioned before. We learned that that same morning she interviewed for the Today show, link  here. We also met the coach of the American Women Hokey team, who turned out to be a lovely company and we thoroughly enjoyed our time in a quirky Russian restaurant among athletes from just about everywhere in the world and their families.
The next day we managed to watch part of the Russia vs Slovakia Hokey Game in our Russian Hokey jerseys (picture above) and then quickly changed in orange for the finals of Women 1500 m speed skating. You gotta be fast at the Olympics ;)
The event was packed and atmosphere fantastic. The Russian spectators were rather loud but not overwhelmingly and the other well presented nations were of course the Dutch but also the Americans and the Canadians.
The event went like this: Ter Morse raced, 4 second faster than anyone, left no room for assipration for the gold medal. Then the other 3 Dutch ladies lined up at number 2,3 and 4. The rest of the world followed. Made me so very proud.
Also I partially lost my voice to cheer for Ireen, Marrit and Lotte.
Jorien Ter Morse, the number 1, was too fast, I did not have time to cheer for her...

All in all, amazing experience to watch all the  going to the Dutch skaters. Here is a selfie of our happy orange cheering duo.

And now let me mention a few points of frustration. 
First of all the security solutions. Only in Russia you will be presented with only one point of entrance in the Olympic Park albeit a pretty big one. Imagine, a huge area of probably about 10 sq. km with only one entry point for spectators. Right next to the Skating venue was an exit which we badly needed to use to catch the plane to Moscow but they won't let us because it was staff only. 
But this is an Exit people! And exit means that one already had passed security and has been in the venues so if a terrorist would mean to do any harm they would have long done it! So we had to sprint with our travel bags 3,5 km to the exit to catch a taxi, arriving at the airport soaked in sweat and still pounding. Fact is in Russia the comfort of the individual is easily dismissed as unnecessary and a nice-to-have rather than a must and examples of that are plentiful as I already mentioned

Then there was the queue for  the visitors pass which took 1,5 hour of valuable time in the best case scenario. You know that you will have a huge event and people need to register (btw, is this really necessary when one fills out all info already when buying tickets). But say you do need a visitors pass. Why not organize it so that there is no waiting.
Let me try to explain. Because the Russians are the most stoic people I have ever seen. They will patiently wait in any queue, or in their cars in a huge traffic jam when Putin needs to go to the airport, or for food or a drink on a Saturday afternoon in the park, or at Ikea, or for parking, basically for anything. It probably has something to do with the training they got during the Iron curtain when people had to queue for groceries all the time due to the food shortages.
And so they are used to and they are patiently waiting where my used-to-better self is trebling on the inefficiency and lack of pro-activeness of who-ever-was-responsible for that mess.

I am only going to mention one more thing with regards to critisism. Catering, namely places to eat or have a drink. In Russia is really tricky with alcohol, but at a major even like that not to have a proper Beer Hall is like going to a movie and not having any popcorn for sale. Come on! There are other ways to prevent people of getting trashed drunk.
Food wise, in short was expensive and shit. On the left is a picture of the only good thing I ate in 3 days, namely spinach-mushroom salad. All the rest was not worth mentioning. Food in Russia is generally not that great, but given the fact that Sochi is at the Caucasus, you would expect some local food which generally speaking pretty amazing. 
All in all great experience Amazing Good Bye Russia party for my husband and I. 
Let's finish with a joke. Below is the sign in the hotel bathroom. As you can see in English it just says "towel". The Russian version means something like "A towel for your beautifully scented body". The Russian clearly think the English speakers can't quite grasp it ;)