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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Fifteen Sochi experiences I'll carry with me forever and ever

click to enlarge Palm trees and sunbathers, Sochi-style - ED HULA
  • Ed Hula
  • Palm trees and sunbathers, Sochi-style

The Sochi 2014 Olympics were my fifth as a credentialed journalist for the Olympics.

I tried to come up with 17 behind-the-scenes stories, one for each day of the Games, that are all a little off kilter and show a side of the Olympics you are unlikely to experience without being an accredited member of the press corps. To spare the fine readers of Creative Loafing any more pain, I limited myself to 15.

"Good Luck"

A Russian tradition is to wish everyone "good luck" as a form of goodbye.

Before knowing this is traditional, at the end of my check-in process in Sochi, a volunteer said goodbye with: "good luck."

It was an ominous start for my month at the Games.

How I Survived Russian Jail

click to enlarge Me and my captor, and the dangerous bag, several days after my arrest. - ED HULA
  • Ed Hula
  • Me and my captor, and the dangerous bag, several days after my arrest.

On Feb. 2, I was briefly detained by Sochi police in the police sub-station of the Main Press Centre. I had, in a mindless moment, left my satchel in a press conference hall following IOC President Thomas Bach's press conference. Upon going to fetch the bag, I was thwarted by a guard blocking the door.

Immediately thereafter, I was detained for around 40 minutes in the holding jail cell in the MPC while providing a statement to a constable.

The patrolman asked me several biographical details such as, "Where were you educated?" ("Georgia State University, the world's best university, make sure that gets in the report."). And: "do you have a wife?" ("No, but a lot of girlfriends, does that count?")

After the patrolman wrote the official report on regular copy paper, your intrepid correspondent was freed.

Before leaving the cell, I asked my detainer for a photo. I was denied.

Love at the Olympics

Sometimes described as "Spring Break for adults," the Olympics has a strong hook-up culture.

Prophylactics are for sale (and distributed for free) in the Athletes Village. According to the box, the condoms "meet German specifications."

In the pharmacy of the Main Press Centre, a full range of adult products are for sale including the "Forced" line of condoms and the "Romantic Love" and "Long Love" lubricants.

click to enlarge The Forced line of condoms - ED HULA
  • Ed Hula
  • The Forced line of condoms

Only in the name of research, this reporter downloaded the popular dating app Tinder to see what was what.

No fewer than two-dozen Olympians were found as possible mates. Some even had their official team profile photo displayed on the app.

Night and Day for Enthusiasm

Calling it the "Sochi Olympics" is a bit of a misnomer. The Games took part in Adler, district of Sochi, located about 20 miles from the city of Sochi. Much like metro Atlanta, Sochi sprawls for about 90 miles.

The distance from the real Sochi likely didn't help create any sort of enthusiasm for the Games. Neither did a massive Olympic Park with nothing but a sea of asphalt. Sochi organizers claimed as many as 90,000 people visited the park in one day, but you'd be forgiven for not believing those numbers. The park would swallow visitors, dwarfing the few crowds that did assemble.

Head up to the mountains, however, and it was a different experience. Even with nighttime temperatures of 50 degrees, it still felt like a Winter Olympics. There were still passionate fans in large throngs.

Everything for the Sochi Olympics is new. And when I say everything, I mean even the towns themselves.

Gornaya Karusel is the first stop up the mountains and the transfer site to buses and gondolas to go to other mountains. Even on Feb. 22, the second-to-last day of the Games, work was still being done on buildings, with many dark and empty.

Finished parts of the mountains resembled alpine towns that could have been plucked out of Switzerland.

The banks of the River Mzymta were also changed, seemingly into an abandoned construction site.

Large traces of drab gravel fill in for banks of trees.

The gravel fits in nicely with the barely-complete buildings along the highway that are unoccupied.

Seeing them empty caused me to wonder, if they aren't filled now, when will they be used?

click to enlarge A sinkhole appeared outside the main ice hockey stadium. - ED HULA
  • Ed Hula
  • A sinkhole appeared outside the main ice hockey stadium.

Encouragement Abounds at Biathlon

The Laura Cross-Country Ski & Biathlon Complex had three charming displays of encouragement.

In the area between the venue's media center and wax houses, where a special alchemy of wax is applied to help skis glide over the snow, a small snowman with shades, ski poles and a bouquet of roses tells all:

"I wish you Good Luck!"

click to enlarge Encouraging snowman - ED HULA
  • Ed Hula
  • Encouraging snowman

Spectators had to walk through, around and under the course to get to their seats. At one underpass, spectators are told: "Just several meters more - and you'll reach the goal! Upon reaching said goal, fans were congratulated with: "We know the journey was difficult and we are so proud of you!"

The Most Terrifying Moment of the Games

Two moments struck sheer terror in my heart during the Games. A colleague and I took a ski lift up to the top of the biathlon venue. It was a10-minute gondola ride in pitch-black darkness. I am terrified of heights.

Later that night, we schlepped down to the Sanki Sliding Center for bobsleigh.

I leaned over slightly into the track to get better photos of sleds as they sped past at 80 miles per hour with more than 3Gs of force. Every time a team races past you as your head is slightly in the track, your heart will skip a beat and you will consider the impact of a bobsled hitting you. Guaranteed.

click to enlarge Me dangerously close to the bobsleigh - ED HULA
  • Ed Hula
  • Me dangerously close to the bobsleigh

The Most Humiliating Moment of the Games

The laundry service for journalists was nothing short of humiliating.

Long lines were the norm and patrons were required to count out their garments. That meant having as many as 12 colleagues see your underwear.

On top of that, the dates for return were flexible.

One frustrated German journalist said after the second day of delays: "This is the only lottery in town!"

One broadcaster complained about receiving someone else's socks. It is unknown if the missing socks were reunited with their rightful owner.

click to enlarge A typical hotel room for journalists - ED HULA
  • Ed Hula
  • A typical hotel room for journalists

Ladies Waiting for Journalists

Many journalists were housed at the Ekaterininsky Kvartal Omega Apart Hotel 18 (to use its full name).

Being an official media hotel, you had to display your "Olympic Identity and Accreditation Card," or OIAC, to get past security. Security consisted of one sleeping guard and another monitoring a turnstile.

For the first 10 days, on any given night a dozen or so mildly-scantily-clad women without OIACs would loiter in the parking lot. No men stood around in the temporary home to several hundred journalists.

Around the eleventh day, uniformed police began monitoring the complex

The loitering women never returned, confirming many journalists' beliefs about the ladies' employment.

Handy Security

Being a high-profile event, security at the Olympics is understandably very strict.

Either entering the train station or passing through venue security, everyone had to pass through a metal detector.

That was followed by a pat down from a guard of your same gender. The inspections ranged from a couple bored taps to touches that were quite possibly illegal in Russia.

click to enlarge This infographic apparently has no meaning and was not placed near anything - ED HULA
  • Ed Hula
  • This infographic apparently has no meaning and was not placed near anything

That Didn't Take Long

On Feb. 8, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta appeared in Sochi to announce his full support for a 2024 Olympic bid from Italy, a key part of a successful bid.

Immediately after the event, observers commented: "now the question is, how long will he stay in office."

Less than a week later he resigned.

The Difficulty of Following the Olympics at the Olympics

It seems fairly obvious: if one is at the Olympics, especially covering the Olympics, it should be quite easy to follow the Games, right? Wrong. There's probably no worse way to follow the Olympics than being here.

A tremendous amount of time is spent in transit going to events. Depending on what you cover on a given day it can be hours a day. And then when you get to an event, that's all you know.

Working in the Main Press Centre provides one of the more frustrating experiences following the Olympics. In the private office area, different news outlets will have "offices" that are essentially cubicles with doors. Quite often a cheer will erupt from a neighbor, curious to investigate the hullabaloo you turn to your television, see that you have curling on, and continue to wonder what caused the excitement.

Mutant "Cows" Roam Sochi

On the way into work one day, I saw a flock of wild horses munching grass along the highway. Coming fresh off the heels of the Sochi stray dog controversy, I asked about these apparent stray horses.

A Sochi 2014 spokeswoman informed me "they are not strays" and "they are not horses. They are cows."

She added: "It is part of the local sightseeing."

click to enlarge These horses are actually cows - ED HULA
  • Ed Hula
  • These horses are actually cows

An Olympic First

On January 29, I had an Olympic first. I was the first customer of the Main Press Centre McDonald's, continuing an Olympic tradition of me being either the first or last customer of the Golden Arches' MPC outpost.

The opening was delayed for about 45 minutes, leaving your fearless correspondent to be the subject of curious questions from passers-by ("why, exactly, are you waiting so long for McDonald's?")

My wait is only slightly more shameful than it sounds, but one broadcaster said he waited "six weeks" for the restaurant's opening.

Why do this?

Anyone who has done an Olympics will ask: "why am I doing this."

It's a good question. Working at the Olympics is one of the few times you will feel guilty leaving work at midnight, as you see dozens of other colleagues and friends with several hours of work left.

For me, I'm not sure if "fun" is the best way to describe the Games but there is something, well, fun about the energy and the never-ending workload. I tend to feed off the energy and I end up enjoying myself.

Beside all of that, the Games are simply amazing.

There's nothing else that unites the world under one flag and has true universal appeal.

On the sporting front, there's no other event where the winner of a race would wait 28 minutes to shake the hand of the last-place finishers. Dario Cologna did that following his victory in the 15-kilometer cross-country skiing sprint.

My Favorite Ending

While the Olympics is supposed to celebrate the finest sporting achievements, my favorite sporting moment was one that lacked greatness.

On Feb. 20, Egor Korotkov, Victor Norberg, and Jouni Pellinen crashed just meters from the finish line in their skicross quarterfinal.

The trio then had a photo finish for second - all in various forms of tumbling. Korotkov ended up with second by virtue of sticking his arm out first while splayed on the ground.

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