Kovacevic: Russians warming up to Games

| Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, 10:00 p.m.

SOCHI, Russia — The morning after the Opening Ceremony nine days ago, Erin Huffman of Wheeling, W.Va., walked about the Olympic Park that had been the world's focal point only hours earlier. She was pretty much alone, aside from a few volunteers posing near the giant rings at the park's center.

Other than the volunteers' giggles and piped-in music, the only sound was the dull roar of the nearby Olympic cauldron.

“It seems very organized,” Huffman said. “It's too bad there aren't many people to organize.”

That scene stayed mostly sparse and silent through the first weekend. A few fans would dot the sprawling six-venue park that's home to all of the sports but never enough for a real pulse.

It's hard to pinpoint how or when that changed, but it most assuredly has. Tens of thousands of people are flocking to the park. Live rock and marching bands play around the clock. Flags and national colors are everywhere, most of them Russian but now even with the international flavor that's expected during an Olympics.

It might have been the early gold medal in team figure skating, sparked by the legendary Evgeni Plushenko and 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaia, that galvanized the Russians.

It might have been that Evgeni Malkin and the NHL players arrived to stock the Russian hockey team a week ago, setting off a patriotic fervor so powerful that President Vladimir Putin was passing through the Olympic Village on Friday wishing all competitors well “in everything except hockey, of course.”

Or it might all have been contrived, to an extent.

Portable party

The Adler region of Sochi, home to the Olympic Park and all residences other than those in the mountains, is about a 45-minute drive from downtown with little in between. Before the Olympic bid was approved in 2007, Adler was little more than a village and marshland. As such, it had precious few restaurants, bars or even stores.

That's still true. And because the residents are so shielded from the Olympics — plexiglass walls around the new roads, for example — the visitors are shielded, as well, from whatever Adler has to offer. And so Adler slept peacefully after the events the first few nights, as did the visitors.

Then tents popped up. Everywhere. In the early part of the week, temporary restaurants and bars and music venues were being erected throughout Adler, some of them in the middle of Olympic residences. Also new were much smaller booths housing classic Russian merchandise such as nesting dolls and the like, hawked by older women dressed in historic garb. Some will sit in their booths past midnight, even though no one is buying.

Just like that, Adler went from graveyard to a grand party.

Nothing happens in Russia, least of all on this scale, without the government starting it. So perhaps the arrival of Putin into town was the spark. Perhaps it was the Sochi organizers.

Also typical of Russia, no one will acknowledge that anything beyond pure, organic motivation made it happen.

“It is a joy to see how the Games are being received,” said Dmitry Chernyshenko, CEO of the Sochi Committee.

Based on how flimsy some of the tents are and how permanent their interiors appear, that particular joy will end when the Games do.

Pure pride

There's also an unmistakable purer sentiment at hand: The Russians are beginning to let their hair down and be themselves.

The morning after the figure skating, newspapers blared headlines not only about the event but also about national pride. And after several months of hearing nothing but horror stories about the terrorism that might happen here, then seeing that the Olympics did, in fact, appear as safe as promised, many emerged from under the table.

It's strikingly similar to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, the first Summer Games after 9/11. A large portion of the residents of that city of 4 million had been besieged by similar fears and fled to the countryside to stay with family or friends. It wasn't until a week had passed that Athens showed signs of life, but by the end the Greeks were the Greeks.

“I think people wanted to feel like the coast is clear, that it was OK for them to come,” said Anton Troianovski, a native Russian who lives in Berlin. “You could say the same for people who have come from all over. One thing that people maybe don't appreciate about the Sochi situation is that it's very far from everything, and not many people live here.”

The population is 350,000, about the size of Pittsburgh.

“I know of a friend's relatives in Moscow who waited to come, then took a 25-hour train ride,” Troianovski said. “If you fly, yes, it's easy. But not everyone can afford to fly.”

And now that the friend's relatives have made that 850-mile journey?

“They're not complaining at all,” Troianovski said. “They're having a great time.”

A young lady who would only give her first name, Irina, said she came alone — also by train from just south of Moscow — “because nothing was going to keep me away from this. My country has an Olympics, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Attendance is hard to gauge. Chernyshenko said Friday that ticket sales were “around 1 million,” which is well off the pace of the Vancouver Games in 2010, which sold 97 percent of all tickets for a total of 1.49 million. But even that tells little. Empty seats in venues are quickly being filled by volunteers — another practice Chernyshenko denies is happening — but those often are the result of sponsors not showing up rather than being unsold.

The mood isn't hard at all to gauge.

The crowds at events are getting more vocal, from the deafening roars for Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin and the hockey team to the taunts aimed at throwing foreign figure skaters out of whack. Dan Bylsma, coach of the Penguins and the United States men's hockey team, described the hockey atmosphere as “unlike anything we've seen. Ashley Wagner, American bronze medalist in figure skating, described her venue this way: “People really can't prepare you for how that feels having the entire audience chanting ‘Russia' as you're warming up.”

Even the workers, volunteers and security personnel who had been so stoic, so quiet, in the early going are smiling, laughing, playing traditional Russian music.

“This was always going to happen. It was just going to take a little time,” said Maksim Krupin of St. Petersburg, Russia. “Now imagine if our hockey team wins.”

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