SOCHI, RUSSIA - Aside from triumphs and defeats, medals and near-misses, here’s what I will remember most about this Russian adventure known as the Olympic Winter Games: The people.
For all the abhorrent politics, the shoddy treatment of stray dogs, the spectre of terrorism that made foreigners want to stay away from the Sochi Olympics, there are thousands of Russian people, most of them young and vibrant, who have done everything possible to make visitors feel welcome.
These were their Games.
From Nadia at the media help desk to Ruslan our trusty bartender in the local watering hole, to Marina in the hotel lobby, to all the Sergeis and Andreis and Annas and Olgas that worked as volunteers, it was clear the young Russian people want the world to know they are very much like everyone else.
One of my favourite things to see in Sochi was the smile on the face of the Russian people when I told them I liked their country and their people and appreciated what they had done to pull off this massive undertaking. They desperately wanted to hear they were doing a good job, that the world’s view of them was not as unsmiling, unfriendly ogres who don’t know what they’re doing.
On the contrary, it was impressive how much the Russians appreciated the presence of Westerners, how they made attempts to use the English language — much better attempts than the English-speakers made to use Russian.
They had a lot to be proud of. By many accounts, Russia pulled off one of the finest Olympics in history, certainly from an athletes’ standpoint.
It was an organizational marvel, from the brand new venues in coastal and mountain clusters to the athlete and media villages, to the exemplary transportation system.
And the hosts were fiercely supportive of their athletes, who did the country proud by finishing atop the medal table. Every time a Russian athlete was competing, no matter the sport, no matter if they understood what was happening, the fans were vocal and appreciative.
They seemed riveted by Sunday’s closing ceremony, both inside and out of Fisht Olympic Stadium, swelling with the pride of a collective job well done.
My favourite moment of the closing ceremony was when the Russians poked fun at themselves by having an Olympic ring not open during a performance, showing a sense of humour about a similar incident that occurred at the opening ceremony.
Russian sense of humour? Not something you would have expected to encounter 20 years ago.
There was much more pomp and circumstance, of course, as President Vladimir Putin’s $51-billion Games were closed with fitting opulence.
The security was extra tight again on Sunday, with Putin in the Olympic Park, but even security, talked about so much prior the Games, was efficient without being intrusive for the most part.
Early in the Games, some negative tweets from grouchy journalists cast Sochi in a bad light, but that perception was unfair.
These Games were definitely sterile in some ways — you felt like you were living in a bubble — but they were safe and smoothly run, with very few hiccups.
“The response we got from all the different participants is really overwhelmingly positive,” International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said Sunday.
“I had the opportunity to spend four nights in the different Olympic villages, speaking to the athletes, and I have to tell you there was not a single complaint. They really loved the facilities, the quality of the Olympic villages, and the proximity of the villages and their venues.
“These Games were a real special experience.”
These were my first Olympics as a journalist so I can’t draw too many comparisons but many veteran Olympic writers would agree with Bach’s assessment. Athletes I spoke to had nothing but good things to say.
And all this took place in a location that was a swamp seven years ago and in a country where hospitality is supposedly a foreign concept.
“After 17 days of exceptional competition we have had unforgettable and exceptional games,” Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut said. “The planning of these extraordinary Olympic Games, the unique hospitality, and the organization of the sport competition has been world class.”
Canada took home 25 medals in these Games, 10 of them gold. For the first time since 1980, the country’s athletes failed to earn more medals than in the previous Games, but finished just one behind the total from Vancouver 2010.
Canadian chef de mission Steve Podborski was satisfied with the total, even though he and Aubut both said before the Games the goal was to finish on top of the table.
“We feel very privileged to find a stage as incredible as in Sochi,” he said. “If you want to compete and be the best in the world, you want a place that really reflects the effort, the years of training. It was truly Olympic. The athletes were texting and tweeting how fantastic the venues are. Our athletes are delighted.”
There are other things I’ll never forget about these Games, notably the passion and precision of the Jennifer Jones curling team as they steamrolled their way to gold, the no-quit women’s hockey team that provided the most dramatic moment of the Games, the selflessness of Gilmore Junio, giving up his spot to help teammate Denny Morrison win a silver medal in speed skating, and the men’s hockey team that allowed only three goals against in six games and went unbeaten to mine gold.
I’ll remember the sadness of Calgary’s Alex Gough when she finished fourth in the women’s luge event and will have a hard time ever erasing the sight of and sound of the heaving, sobbing U.S. women’s hockey players after Canada’s unbelievable comeback in the gold-medal game.
I’ll remember the beauty of the region, with its Black Sea sunsets and snow-capped mountain peaks, the palm trees, the balmy “winter” weather.
I’ll remember vodka (some of it homemade), bland meat dishes, the wines of the Krasnodar Krai region, dumplings, brussel sprouts for breakfast, pancake stands and The White Crow bar, which I only mention because it was named halfway through the Olympics after previously being known simply as Bar No. 4.
These Olympics were not perfect. Which ones ever are?
But for me, they were unforgettable.