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.
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
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
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
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.
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!