SOCHI, Russia — Any Olympics is beset by problems and concerns, but the worries ahead of the Sochi Olympicswere more than ordinary. There was the threat of terrorism. The backlash to Russia‘s anti-gay law. Stories of journalists showing up to find their accommodations unfinished or unsafe.
But President Vladimir Putin was determined to show the world a new Russia over 17 days in February. Looking only at the 22nd Olympic Winter Games themselves, how did Russia do?
Athletes and Olympic officials were nearly unanimous: This was an extraordinarily well run Olympics. The first rule of any Olympics is to keep the athletes safe and happy, and by all accounts, the Sochi Olympic organizing committee excelled.
The early hiccups with journalists notwithstanding, the good organization extended beyond the athletes. Was it wise to spend $51 billion for an Olympics? That’s an important question. But there is no question that it had an effect. Building venues for all the ice events around a single Olympic Plaza surely was enormously expensive, but once the Games began, it made this one of the most convenient Winter Olympics in history.
Moreover, the transportation system was extraordinary for officials, media, and fans. InVancouver and Turin, it could take as long as 2-1/2 hours to get to some mountain venues. Here, it took less than 90 minutes. The cost, again, was enormous. Sochi officials built a new road and railway to the mountain venues. But, again, it worked.
Last, perhaps only the Russians know how serious the terrorist threat was or wasn’t, but they managed to create a feeling of security without having the security appear overbearing. And,of course, there was no incident between the opening and closing ceremonies.
At an end-of-the-Olympics press conference, United States Olympic Committee Chairman Larry Probst singled out Mr. Putin for praise. “What struck me was the involvement and engagement of President Putin,” he said. “He has really owned the Games, and I would compliment him and his team, too.”
The athletes were overwhelming in their praise of the venues and how they were maintained for competition. In particular, the maintenance of the alpine and cross-country skiing venues amid spring-like temperatures was heroic.
But from the viewer’s perspective, there was nothing that truly stood out. Perhaps the closest was the Bolshoy Ice Dome, with its dome lights broadcasting the score of the game inside.
It can be hard to make Winter Olympic venues distinctive. A mountain, after all, is a mountain. But imagine an Olympic downhill at Kitzbühel’s Hahnenkamm course in Austria or an Olympic ski jumping event at Holmenkollen in Oslo, and you begin to get goosebumps. In Nagano andLillehammer, the M-Wave and Vikingskipet were iconic speedskating venues. Even Turin had a spectacular medals plaza set in the heart of its Baroque central city.
The Olympic venues here, by being built from whole cloth a 45-minute train ride from Sochi itself, had nothing approaching that.
How a nation embraces an Olympic Games can have a huge effect on how the Games feel. Russia turned out to be a great host.
I don’t know where each Olympics gets its volunteers from, but if we could somehow get them elected to government in every country, there would be world peace. And Russia was no different. The volunteers were patient and enthusiastic.
The crowds, too, were enthusiastic, though perhaps not as passionate as those in London and Vancouver.
Admittedly, the hosts have no control over what happens in the competition. And admittedly, the competition at every Games is great.
But without question, some Games are even greater than great. Beijing in particular stands out for Michael Phelps’s eight gold medals and Usain Bolt’s world records in the 100 and 200 meters. In Salt Lake, world records fell almost every time speedskaters touched the ice, and Janica Kostelic won three gold medals and a silver in the five alpine skiing events.
For Sochi, the historic accomplishment will be the Dutch speedskaters winning a record 23 medals, the indelible memory perhaps of Russian Adelina Sotnikova taking the gold in figure skating from South Korean Kim Yu-na.
OK, this is a glass half-full or half-empty thing. Either you love that it was 65 degrees and sunny, or you wonder what that has to do with a Winter Olympics. The fact is, it didn’t feel like a Winter Olympics, and everyone who was in Lillehammer (where it was sub-freezing every day) will tell you it was magical.
In addition, the weather did affect events – the alpine skiing in particular. The snow was in a sorry state by the last event, the men’s slalom. Earlier in the Olympics, with the warm late-morning sun softening the slopes, late racers were at a notable disadvantage.
At least it didn’t rain too much.
The opening and closing ceremonies never reached the grandiosity of Beijing or the honesty of London, but they were lovely in their own right. The nod in the closing ceremony to the Olympic ring that failed to open in the opening ceremony was both funny and clever. If the new Russia can good-naturedly laugh at itself, that’s no small thing.
And having the children’s chorus sing the Russian national anthem during closing ceremony was a nice touch. If the military chorus that sang the anthem in the opening ceremony was significant of the martial old Russia, these children were the symbol of its new promise.
At times, the closing ceremony veered into classic closing ceremony territory with ballet and piano-playing. London did the same thing with its tribute to British rock. Understandable, but hardly original. But at the end, Sochi’s closing ceremony became one giant sing-along, and though those outside Russia might not have known the words, it felt like we were being invited in, too.
And if that is the new Russia, it’s a wonderful thing.