The Olympics of Control — 2014 or 1984?

Posted February 7th, 2014 at 9:39 pm (UTC+0)
3 comments

Sochi may be sunny and the skies bright blue, but I feel as if the Olympics are in 1984.

I walked into the Olympic Village train station and was confronted by
the longest row of x-ray machines I have seen in my life. There were more x-ray machines and more gray uniformed security guards at this suburban rail station than I saw last month when transiting through Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport.

The long-awaited 'high speed train to the mountains' turned out to be just a modern, imported train traveling on a new rail line, at 30 km/hour. VOA Photo: James Brooke

The long-awaited ‘high speed train to the mountains’ turned out to just a modern, imported train traveling on a new rail line, at 30 km/hour. VOA Photo: James Brooke

But, once aboard, I found the spiffy new “Expres” still had that homey
feel of a creaking Moscow “Elektrichka”: a red-faced young man whining
to a (presumably irate and female) caller: “No!! I have not been
drinking!!”

It is not enough to buy a ticket to an Olympic event. You have
to also apply for a spectator pass. Security wants to know who will
sit in each and every seat. The nanny state has already told several
dissidents they can forget about using their Olympics tickets. Other
than that, everyone should feel spontaneous, act happy, and be polite.
Closed circuit TV is everywhere.

I can only hope that Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister
responsible for the Olympics, misspoke Thursday when he answered a
reporter’s question about housing problems this way: “We have
surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the
shower, direct the nozzle at the wall, and then leave the room for the
whole day.”

At journalist hotel, food is tasty, like this spoonful of seafood dinner. VOA Photo James Brooke

At journalist hotel, food is tasty, like this spoonful of seafood dinner. VOA Photo James Brooke

In addition to monitoring visitors’ physical movements, state security
is monitoring visitors’ mental movements.

In Sochi, every email, SMS and phone call is being recorded. Given
last week’s leak of a recording of two American diplomats discussing
Ukraine, we kind of suspected that. It still makes Russia an odd
refuge for Edward Snowden, flag bearer of the privacy cause.

On the topic of housing, I have received five queries from female
friends fishing for delicious horror stories about the state of my
room.

The one male query came from Jerry Kobalenko, the Canadian Arctic
adventurer in Banff:

“Jim, as someone who knows Russia well, you should do a bit on the
spoiled Western reporters coming to Sochi and expressing horror
because they expected Russia would still offer them their Starbucks
(or antiseptic bathrooms) just like at home.”

Sorry, I side with Jerry.

No complainers here. VOA Sochi team enjoys the February sunshine. From left, Misha Gutkin, Jon Spier, James Brooke, Mike Eckels, Parke Brewer.

No complainers here. VOA Sochi team enjoys the February sunshine. From left, Misha Gutkin, Jon Spier, James Brooke, Mike Eckels, Parke Brewer.

A lot of journalists are fit to be tied to discover that the
Russians, on building 24,000 hotel rooms in three years, placed a
priority on completing the rooms of athletes over rooms of
journalists. (I mean, who is more important here, anyhow?)

There is the German photographer who threw up his hands when he
discovered a stray dog snoozing in a half-completed room down the
hall. Well, with “Animal Control” teams combing Sochi like Cruella de
Vil, where would you take refuge if you were a stray dog?

I have a top, fifth floor- room with the most sunshine I have seen since I was in Rio de Janeiro six months ago.

Ok, the elevator, sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. But yesterday, I
noticed on my tour on the Mountain Olympic Village that the athletes
at 1,200 meters elevation spurned shuttle buses and hiked to the gondola station. Odd how they invariably had flat stomachs. At sea
level, I can handle five flights of stairs.

Ok, there was no soap (fixed). I still can’t figure out how to use the
TV (not a new phenomenon). And the water dribbles out of my shower
head (I survived summer camp).

Hopefully, Sochi will follow the trajectory of Beijing, Vancouver and
London. After several days of nervous, pre-game trash talking,
everyone will now focus on the athletes.

Let the Games begin!

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

3 Responses to “The Olympics of Control — 2014 or 1984?”

  1. John says:

    Kind of a cheap shot at the security… The terrorists have clearly stated that Sochi games are a target. If there’s not enough security and something does happen, can you imagine the pi$$ing and moaning from the West?

  2. Ivan says:

    It’s true what John says. Kinda strange blaming for extra security, I’d rather have even more than think what might happen if not enough.

  3. […] nature there is gorgeous no doubt, but the stadiums and hotels also do look very modern. There are rumors that hotel rooms are loaded with spy equipment and all conversations are followed. May […]

About

About

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

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