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The Winter Olympics in Sochi are a success ... but don't tell Russia

About Dejan Kovacevic
Picture Dejan Kovacevic
Sports Columnist
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports writer for the Tribune-Review.

By Dejan Kovacevic

Published: Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, 10:24 p.m.

SOCHI, Russia — Nothing exploded, no one was killed, and the worst of the violence at these XXII Winter Olympics that concluded on Sunday was some Cossack whipping rock stars along the Black Sea beach.

No, really, that happened.

A group of 15th-century-style Cossacks — what the Russians call “auxiliary police” in the Krasnodar province — approached the anti-government Russian band Pussy Riot during the filming of a music video along the water. Minutes into a song, one Cossack began lashing two band members with a horsewhip.

Authorities said he'd been “held accountable” but never specified how.

Otherwise?

On the 17th and final day, Sidney Crosby and Canada claimed another hockey gold, and there was a lavish closing ceremony that celebrated Russia's colorful past.

Despite all the terror threats and turbulent surroundings of the North Caucasus region, there were no reports of any terror incidents, including any that might have been thwarted.

What's more, there was barely a peep of complaint from the participants, the visitors, even some of us whiny journalists who littered social media in the early going about half-ready hotels and two-toilet stalls.

Crosby offered this, unsolicited, after scoring in Canada's 3-0 victory over Sweden: “I can't say enough about how we've been treated here in Sochi, the organization of the Games, everything. I'll tell you right now, you won't hear a complaint from any of our guys.”

He was hardly alone.

It isn't easy to find anyone outwardly applauding the Russians — much less apologizing — for the faux narratives that preceded the lighting of the torch. That's understandable. Russia's got enemies in most every direction, politically, socially and most prominently with its connection to the uprising in Ukraine.

To put it kindly, they don't engender a lot of sympathy.

And that, once it's all told, is how I think the world will remember this 17-day event: Sochi didn't fail.

Because there can't be any question that's where the bar was set, right?

Sophisticated security

Vladimir Putin, Russia's authoritarian president, was playing with matches to try this in the first place. He could have proposed the Olympics for many places in Russia that would have been more ready and less expensive, but he wanted them in the North Caucasus to flex those famous biceps amid Russia's most bitter internal enemies.

To achieve that, his government ponied up $51 billion, much of it in permanent infrastructure, and put the full weight of the Russian security apparatus — military, police, intelligence — into equally limitless motion.

If tens of thousands of visitors were put in harm's way, so be it. Putin wouldn't blink, and the International Olympic Committee lacked the spine to acknowledge potential crises.

It was a reckless, terrible risk to take, no matter the outcome. And yet, the outcome wasn't the predicted disaster, and history should take note.

If anything, the highest grade of gold here should go to those who not only kept the Games safe but did so with less apparent intrusion than their predecessors in Vancouver and London.

Scanners were more sophisticated, the Olympic credentials carried identifying chips, and the general closeness of the facilities offered such freedom of movement that athletes, even the NHL stars, were casually riding bikes to their games.

At other Olympics, the athletes were cut off. Here, they'd walk out of their national houses and right over to watch speedskating or curling or four other choices without a second scan.

“Seeing that was amazing,” said Ray Shero, general manager of the U.S. men's hockey team and the Penguins. “You could see right away that you could really move around. The Finns were riding bikes, then our guys started doing it, and they loved it.”

Make no mistake: There was security. Two blimps — painted white to not look overbearing — constantly circled Olympic Park and surrounding areas. Officers whose goal was to pounce on any wrongdoing — dubbed the Purple Police for their jacket color — walked in packs among the fans.

But there was barely a firearm to be seen, a stark contrast to openly brandished guns in London and, 10 years ago, Athens.

The presence and searches intensified in the final four days. Black-clad, club-carrying police began walking in pairs among spectators. Patdowns went from scant to universal. But that might have meant nothing more than the Russians wanting to finish strong.

Speaking out

Another major issue entering the Games, Russia's globally criticized anti-gay laws, never amounted to much, almost surely because mounting protests of any kind was nearly impossible.

One Italian gay-rights activist who goes by Vladimir Luxuria was detained by Russian police after shouting “It's OK to be gay!” outside Shayba Arena, one of the two hockey venues. Luxuria was detained for 10 minutes, then driven outside the city and released in the countryside after her spectator pass was taken. Luxuria left the country two days later.

One square in Sochi proper — 30 miles north of the Games' coastal venues — was set aside for licensed protesters. Russian authorities claim no one applied.

Some athletes pledged before arriving to show their outrage with Russia's anti-gay laws, but that didn't happen, either. The IOC strictly forbids any form of political or social statements in competition, and it reinforced that with national committees.

Ashley Wagner, an American figure skater, had promised on social media to make some kind of statement. But at a news conference last week, she cringed at a question on that topic.

“You know, if I thought it would make a difference, I would,” she said.

Similarly, there wasn't much visible about Ukraine, possibly because there was almost no news of the developments in Kiev on TV or in the public prints. Some of Ukraine's 44 athletes went home, but not the majority. The athletes who stayed asked to wear black armbands in solidarity with those who died in Kiev protests, but the IOC and Ukrainian committee agreed instead to hold a moment of silence in the Athletes' Village.

Lauryn Williams, the silver-medal bobsledder from Rochester in Beaver County, called the spirit of the Village “like one big community” in that regard.

Sochi's setup

The one area of near-universal agreement by the time the Olympics ended was that these were the best-organized Games anyone could recall.

“It's amazing what they've done,” U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said. “They didn't spare anything and put a lot of people and dollars against the project.”

“The organization was world-class,” said his Canadian counterpart, Marcel Aubut.

The list of such comments could wrap around a speedskating oval. And yes, dignitaries tend to say such things out of courtesy, but I can attest from many conversations with people from different countries that they all were impressed. You didn't hear athletes talking about difficult circumstances in their spectacular new venues, save for the warm weather in the mountains. You don't see long lines anywhere. (Except for the one merchandise store in Olympic Park, presumably because making money still isn't all that important here.) You didn't see the kind of major functional and transportation glitches that made Vancouver such a mess in 2010.

That organization didn't come without cost.

As Blackmun seemed to suggest, 60,000 security personnel, 25,000 volunteers and $51 billion should buy quite a bit, and that was evident not only in state-of-the-art roads, bridges and tunnels but in the venues themselves. It blew my mind every time I went down a set of back steps in one of these places that it was all marble.

But it came at the cost of villagers in the Adler region being displaced against their will and, according to some reports, cheap labor for jobs such as painting over dilapidated houses and planting small, temporary trees in what obviously will remain construction zones.

Spirit-free

Just about the only area in which these Olympics were visibly lacking was that Olympic feel, if you will.

Dmitry Chernyshenko, the young, spirited organizer of the Sochi committee, claimed with four days left in the Games that “all tickets have been sold.” Meaning all 1.2 million available.

But a couple of days later, at the Sweden-Finland bronze hockey game the paid attendance was 9,045 in the 12,000-seat Bolshoy Ice Dome.

Oops.

Crowds were a problem from the beginning, and not just because of the usual Olympic problem of wealthy sponsors not bothering to use their freebies, or even the common — but denied — practice of stuffing empty seats with volunteers. (“I don't mind,” young Maria confided at the gold-medal game on Sunday.)

There's a feeling that unless it's Russian, it doesn't matter.

Highlights in venues invariably were of Russians excelling. Tweets from @Sochi2014, TV highlights and video displays around Olympic Park were evidence of it.

So it probably shouldn't be surprising that crowds cheered Russians and basically ignored everyone else, even at figure skating, where respect for all is expected.

With two minutes to go in Canada's hockey victory, the crowd burst into a huge “Ru-See-YA” chant for Mother Russia.

Why?

Maybe they wanted to make sure nobody apologized on their way out of town.

 

 

 
 


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