TO THE spray-painted grass, cowering dogs, rusty tap water, malfunctioning locks, a seemingly drunk Ukrainian hijacker wannabe, gay clubs lousy with reporters, surveillance showercams, baby pines held up with guy wires of twine, and lingering mud, rubble and concrete shards—indeed, to the overall seaside, carny-barking, thrown-up, Potemkin-particleboard character of the whole scene—there was a solution. It suggested itself in Fisht Stadium, at the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, where for the first time athletes didn't so much file into the stadium, as ascend into it. And it sits there in a letter Lenin wrote to a French girlfriend just before the Bolshevik Revolution: "Set off for the mountains—you must. In the mountains winter is wonderful. It's sheer delight, and it smells like Russia."
Or at least like a Winter Olympics. As caviling foreign press made more of each glitch than it deserved, a trip up the Krasnaya Polyana valley from the coast delivered escape and reliable thrills. Not cheap ones, to be sure, for the road and railway leading there cost roughly $9 billion, more than the entire 2010 Vancouver Games. But over the opening days, the mountain cluster of venues supplied Olympic moments and Olympian challenges alike.
At the Sanki Sliding Center, Germany's Felix Loch defended his title in the men's luge with a victory for good karma, for Loch had split the gold from his last medal in two, donating half (remelted into the form of a new medal) to the family of the late Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who was killed in a crash on the track in Vancouver. On the plunging downhill course at Rosa Khutor, Alpine skiers got nearly as much air as the slopestyle snowboarders, and America's greatest big-stage skier, Julia Mancuso, broke a stretch of 10 straight super combined races without reaching the podium by winning a bronze at the most opportune time. Meanwhile, Rosa Khutor's slopestyle course turned snowboarders into crash-test dummies, leaving one competitor with a broken collarbone, another with a cracked helmet and no one with the usual gnarly bravado. "On the first run," confided New Zealand's Rebecca (Possum) Torr, "I was so f------ scared."
If political repression needed an antidote, you could count on the Extreme Park to deliver it, whether it was Russia's Alexey Sobolev rocking a snowboard with a design celebrating the Kremlin-disapproved punk band Pussy Riot or the sign in a men's room taking liberties with the original Russian: PLEASE DON'T FLUSH PAPER TOWELS, SANITARY TOWELS, GUM, OLD PHONES, UNPAID BILLS, HOPES, DREAMS OR GOLDFISH DOWN THIS TOILET.
The winner of the men's slopestyle snowboarding, Sage Kotsenburg of the U.S., came bearing subtle subversions of his own. In a sport that has become an acrobatics arms race, Kotsenburg stubbornly stuck to his aesthetic, an homage to old-school boarders that he calls "steez," a mash-up of style and ease. As it happened, on race day the judges decided that they didn't care how many times you tumbled through the air as long as you looked good doing it. That left Kotsenburg the surprised beneficiary, and fellow American Jamie Anderson, already a favorite but wise enough to study the men to see what the judges wanted, the winner of the women's gold the next day.
But no spot delivered atmosphere quite like the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center, an amphitheater in the mountains that skier Kikkan Randall of the U.S. likened to "a movie set." The venue had drawn pre-Games snickers for a partitionless twin-toilet stall that seemed to put the "bi" in biathlon. By the weekend, however, Laura had become the private reserve of the biathlete they call the King, Ole Einar Bj√∏rndalen of Norway.
Early in last Saturday's 10-kilometer sprint Bj√∏rndalen missed a target in the standing-shooting round, a significant mistake to make up for on a windless night when 15 others would shoot clean. But Bj√∏rndalen, 40, defied predictions that an unusually difficult course—"the toughest in the world," according to U.S. biathlete Lowell Bailey—would flummox him. On skis he recovered the 20 or so seconds lost in a missed-shot penalty loop to win the gold. The medal, his 12th, made him the oldest individual Winter Olympic champion. After finishing fourth in Monday's 12.5-kilometer pursuit, he has as many as four more chances to pass former cross-country skier Bj√∏rn D√¶hlie, also of Norway, for the most medals in Winter Olympic history. "Last year everybody talked about how he needed to retire," said France's Martin Fourcade, who won gold in the 12.5K pursuit, "but he shut the mouths of all the people who were speaking about him."
A punch line of a pastime in North America, biathlon is wildly popular in Europe and nothing less than sacred pageantry in Russia, where it helps get people through long, dark winters. If they don't walk miles from town in cold-weather finery to line a course, they'll park themselves in front of the zomboiashik, the zombie box, where compact racing loops, production techniques like split-screen and digital scoring, and exciting events such as the pursuit, mass start and mixed relay make the action compellingly telegenic. Now the most popular televised winter sport in Europe, biathlon is expected to attract a cumulative viewership of a billion people this year between its World Cup and Olympic audiences. "It's like NASCAR in that people are waiting for the crash, the big blowup on the shooting range," says Tim Burke of the U.S., who won silver at last year's world championships only to miss the podium in two tries last week. "Which they very often get."
The sport that is sometimes called "Russian Formula 1" has roots in the host country that go back to the 1930s, when the Soviets installed their Ready for Labor and Defense program for the entire population, with 10 benchmarks for physical fitness. Two of those prescribed standards assessed rifle marksmanship and cross-country skiing. "[Russian men] all served in the army, where we had to run on skis and carry rifles," says Igor Leonartovich, a military vet from the Temenskaya Region, who was watching the first day of competition. "So this is a sport we're close to."
The Red Army had a brutal introduction to shooting on skis during the 1939--40 Winter War with Finland. Soviet generals thought they could overwhelm the enemy with artillery, but instead got bogged down by the guerrilla savvy of Finnish ski troopers, suffering a half-million casualties over three months. The U.S.S.R. learned its lesson and developed ski troops of its own. Cowled in white uniforms, they used similar tactics two years later to repel the Nazi advance.
With the dawn of the cold war, the twin disciplines prospered as sport. Biathlon aligned with the government's obsession with protecting its 3,700-mile western border and offered an instructive counterpoint to that bourgeois favorite of the decadent West, downhill skiing. As a tool to build patriotism and vigilance, nothing was more symbolically powerful than a huge biathlon or cross-country event named after some athlete who had been among the 27 million Soviets killed during World War II, or as it's known in Russia, the Great Patriotic War. After winning medals at the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics, Alexander Privalov and Vladimir Melanin paid a visit to the Politburo. "You fellas shot good and straight," Nikita Khrushchev told them. "If one of our enemies makes it across our border, shoot him right in the forehead!"
The U.S.S.R. won almost half of all Olympic biathlon medals during its existence. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, demilitarization and political turmoil led to gun control measures that stunted the sport's growth. References to Soviet successes, like the nation's sacrifices during the Great Patriotic War, began to disappear from Russian culture, as did agitprop depictions of citizens on skis with rifles. But today, as many citizens feel nostalgia for the Soviet era, movie houses again screen celebrations of the war in which Russians were the good guys, and biathlon is back in its place of importance. Eight former biathletes took part in the Sochi torch relay and a recent poll ranked biathlon as Russia's second-favorite winter spectator sport, behind figure skating but ahead of hockey. "Those bombings before the Olympics took place in Volgograd, which isn't far from Sochi and the Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus," says W.D. Frank, the American author of Everyone to Skis! Skiing in Russia and the Rise of Soviet Biathlon. "And Volgograd used to be Stalingrad, as in the Battle of Stalingrad, which is forever connected to wartime devastation. So biathlon takes on that much more meaning at these Games. We might view the sport as a quizzical sideshow, but to Russians, their national pride and security hang in the balance."
In the game of adopt-a-sport that oligarchs play, Mikhail Prokhorov, the nickel magnate who owns the Brooklyn Nets, took over the Russian Biathlon Union five years ago. But with his money has come a series of doping positives, including two suspensions on the eve of these Games. Meanwhile, a public rift has opened up between two coaches, Wolfgang Pichler, a German hired gun, and Vladimir Korolkevich, who was recently promoted ahead of him. None of this can be helpful for athletes competing in a discipline that has been called "a golf tournament on speed." As the high-performance director for the U.S. team, Bernd Eisenbichler, says, "This sport is all about pressure management. And the pressure is incredibly high for them, with their long tradition and being on home soil."
To Prokhorov, these aren't concerns of the Marquis-Teague-is-a-game-time-decision-because-of-a-tweaked-knee variety. He has vowed to resign if his biathletes, privileged with three private jets and sizable cash bonuses, don't win at least two gold medals. But through the first three days of competition, the Russians had won only one silver, in the women's sprint. In the men's sprint their best shooter, Anton Shipulin, put one of his standing shots za molokom—"in the milk," a reference to the white void beyond the black hit ring—to miss the podium by .7 of a second. He writhed in the snow at the finish before producing a few Dostoyevskyan words about that single errant shot. "I hate myself for it," he said. "Twenty minutes ago my fate was decided. My happiness, my dream, and I spoiled it myself."
Nothing except a men's hockey gold would mean more to Russians than victory in the 4 √ó 7.5-kilometer men's relay on the final weekend of the Games. The Soviets, who made a fetish of the event for the way it prized the collective over the individual, won the final six Olympic relays they contested under the banner of the U.S.S.R. Alexander Tikhonov, a flamboyant Siberian and 19-time Soviet champion, was a member of four of those gold medal relay teams. At the range he would unshoulder his rifle with a baton twirler's flourish, and after winning an Olympic race in 1980, he reportedly tossed his weapon into the crowd.
In his book, Frank makes the case that Tikhonov was with the KGB. Like many members of the old regime, Tikhonov found his place in the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, becoming wealthy from agricultural business interests. But in 2000 he and his brother, Viktor, were charged with hiring a hit man to murder Aman Tuleyev, a Siberian governor. Viktor was found guilty and served four years in prison; Alexander fled to Austria and joined the executive board of the International Biathlon Union. In '07, when prosecutors renewed their case against him, Alexander was convicted and given a three-year sentence. But in '00 the Duma had celebrated the 55th anniversary of Russia's victory in the Great Patriotic War by passing an amnesty law, which applied to Tikhonov. He returned to Russia and resumed his career as a celebrity ex-athlete, rising to No. 2 in the IBU and heading Russia's governing body for a dozen years before Prokhorov took over. When he announced before the Vancouver Olympics that he would run for IBU president, it was the equivalent of O.J. Simpson challenging Roger Goodell for commissionership of the NFL. Western countries, fearing for the image of the sport, organized and foiled his campaign.
The 67-year-old Tikhonov nonetheless remains the Russian face of the sport. Last week he stationed himself at the shooting range during the first few biathlon sessions, wearing gold rings and what he calls "a 500,000 Euro watch." When asked, he lit into Prokhorov's stewardship: "Everything he does is counterproductive and defies the logical course of action. He chose coaches I wouldn't have let anywhere near the team. Inviting a German coach, for example, was an embarrassment to the whole country.
"The fans are appalled. At the world championships people were screaming obscenities at him. I've asked him, 'Do you enjoy having people dislike you? Do you like it when people speak badly about you and hate you?' And he just stands there, smiling."
A spokesman for Prokhorov, Viktor Maygurov, responds, "Tikhonov is the only prominent biathlete from his generation who criticizes the current program. We have lots of good young athletes, but not a generation of coaches, and it's not at the expense of national pride that we hire foreign ones. And Mr. Prokhorov is the first president of the RBU to invest in regional biathlon centers around the country."
Tikhonov still maintains his innocence. "I was campaigning for governor of the Moscow region and evidently someone didn't like having me as an opponent," he says. "As they say, if you like kielbasa or want to work in politics, it's best you not know the process behind either one. But I endured the whole ordeal with dignity. I was given amnesty because I was very well-liked in Russia and a reputable businessman and beloved athlete."
Tikhonov's life would have been the stuff of an opening ceremony in its own right: Siberia, skis, guns, medals and the KGB, with cameo roles during both the post-Soviet crack-up and the Vladimir Putin era, with its impunity for the well-connected. In touting his Olympic opening ceremony as a celebration of "those who had been living here for centuries, creating, defending and strengthening Russia," director Konstantin Ernst could have been nodding to the Soviet ski soldier. The little girl named Lubova, Russian for love, who floated through Fisht in a dream sequence of Russian history was a head fake: These are no little girl's Games, but the machocrat Putin's. Whether foisting on a captive audience his reputed girlfriend, the rhythmic gymnastics gold medalist Alina Kabaeva, as a torchbearer, or highlighting as one of the cauldron lighters Olympic champion figure skater and politician Irina Rodnina, who five months ago tweeted out a doctored picture of Barack and Michelle Obama with a banana that sent the U.S. Embassy into conniptions, Putin put his cronyism and geopolitical point-scoring on global display.
During the segment devoted to Peter the Great, it was hard not to think that he was planting a seed—that the opening ceremony of some future Russian Olympics ought to include pageantry celebrating the other Russian leader who built grandiosely on a former wetland.
Putin takes off his shirt for photo ops so often you'd think he was the main scofflaw of his country's ban on "propaganda of non-traditional sexual behavior." Indeed, if all you saw was the warmup to the opening ceremony, with an all-male police choir singing "Get Lucky" and a performance by the faux lesbian female pop duo t.A.T.u., and not the HOMO SEX IS SIN sign in a protest in front of the main railway station, Sochi last week seemed like the gay-friendliest of places. But such are the contradictions that led Winston Churchill to famously call Russia "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
In 1954 the delegation leader of a Soviet cross-country ski team touring Western Europe told LIFE magazine, "Ski lifts would not be approved in the Soviet Union. Sports without toil and sweat, without the satisfaction of self-denial and self-conquest, are nothing more than amusement. Up by chairlift, down by gravity—what has that got to do with honest physical culture?"
In today's Russia, something, apparently. Oligarch Vladimir Potanin built the Alpine venue, and Putin, that old KGB overlord, is an obsessive downhill skier with a villa in Krasnaya Polyana.
Gravity tells us that what goes up must come down. What, when, and how hard will reveal themselves after the Olympic flame is extinguished. That comedown could be nothing more than a post-Games malaise, Beijing-like, after a fortnight's high. It might be a crash, √† la Athens, of the inflated oil prices that allowed $51 billion to be spent on the Games in the first place.
Or it may simply be a steady descent back to the sea—over a road that could have been paved with several inches of foie gras at less cost—from that movie set in the sky. Which, for anyone who makes it up to the mountains at these Olympics, would be a bittersweet leave-taking.
In the finals last Saturday the quirky 20-year-old from Park City, Utah, busted out a trick he'd never tried before—a backside 1620 Japan if you're scoring at home—to become the first American to reach the top of the podium at these Games.
OLE EINAR BJ√òRNDALEN
On a course that was described by one competitor as the "toughest in the world," the 40-year-old Norwegian known as the King earned his 12th medal, a gold in the 10-kilometer sprint, to become the oldest individual Winter Olympic champion.
How did this free spirit from South Lake Tahoe, Calif., prepare for a punishing course that felled several top competitors in the prelims? She put on some "meditation music," lit a few candles, burned some sage and "tried to do a little bit of yoga."
The 28-year-old from Stratton, Vt., has been waiting for this moment for eight years. In Turin in 2006 she had a three-second lead in the final but attempted an unnecessary trick on her second-to-last jump, fell and finished second.
MERYL DAVIS & CHARLIE WHITE
The six-time U.S. champions have been skating together for 17 years. In what is likely to be their final competition, Davis and White are the overwhelming favorites to win gold after earning a record-high score during the team competition.
The defending World Cup champion in the giant slalom goes by the nickname Shred. The 29-year-old from Park City, Utah, plans to do just that—and enhance his rep as one of the top U.S. skiers ever—while competing in four events in Sochi.
To see if these U.S. athletes will make history, and for videos, photo galleries and up-to-the-minute event coverage, go to SI.com/Olympics