SOCHI – It was the night, the wee hours of the morning actually, of the women’s gold medal game and the buses – for the only time in these Olympics – appeared to have stopped running. Walking back to the media center, I was hopelessly lost until a young man approached me with a tablet and motioned for me to speak into it.
I said, “Main Media Center.” It was translated in Russian, then the young man asked in his native tongue for directions. “Second tent on the law,” the device said back, but he pointed me in the right direction. A little later, a caterer who spoke English offered to drive me there.
The Sochi Olympics of 2014 will not be remembered for the hockey tournament. Truth be told, there were far too many bad games - including a gold medal game in which Canada completely smothered Sweden into submission – for it to have been considered a classic. The hockey in Vancouver was infinitely better, faster and more exciting. We can only hope that the NHL never, ever goes to the 200-by-100 foot dimensions that are used in international play.
But the Sochi Games will be remembered for not living up to the hype. In a good way. In a most excellent way. These Games were supposed to be the $51 billion debacle. They were supposed to be a nightmare. So-called world security experts were saying before the Olympics that it wasn’t a matter of whether or not there would be a terrorist incident, but how many casualties would result. There were reports that the Russian mob had rented out entire hotels with the intention of filling them with prostitutes, pickpockets and drug dealers. The accommodations were supposed to be dreadful.
None of those things happened. Not a one. People who have covered far more Olympics than I have – my only point of reference before this one was Vancouver – said it was the best-organized event they’ve ever attended. The volunteers were beyond friendly, the people working the venues were professional and helpful, the facilities were spectacular and the accommodations, while spartan, were more than adequate.
How great is it when you go to the lobby bar of your hotel and your bartender pours you a Kronenbourg without you even asking? How great is it to go for a daily run along the boardwalk of the Black Sea in shorts and a T-shirt while North Americans slog their way through the most challenging winter they’ve seen in decades? How great is it to have two main rinks at the Olympics that are literally across the street?
Sochi, as many of us learned while we were here, would not have existed if not for Joseph Stalin. Apparently Stalin had a summer home here when he was the leader of the Soviet Union and ordered a billion dollars in infrastructure – remember, this was the 1930s – to be built. It created Sochi, which some 80 years later landed the Olympics. There have probably been better places to have held the Games, but Sochi was tremendous.
There were some flaws, both in and outside the rink. In terms of the hockey, it would have been far more compelling if the home team had been better and not riddled with dissension. It would have been better if more women’s teams would have been competitive. Away from the rink, things could have looked a little better outside the structures that were built and if your heart doesn’t go out to the number of stray dogs that were roaming the streets looking for food, don’t bother checking because you don’t have one.
It would be interesting to come back to Sochi in 10 years to see what has become of the place. Some of the structures will be dismantled and moved elsewhere, but the real test will be whether the world will see this area as a tourist destination. Some people have their doubts.
But the players loved it, the NHL loved it and everyone who was here loved it. “You’re not going to hear any complaints from me,” Sidney Crosby said after Canada won the gold medal.