I think it’s great. For the first time in Russia it’s feeling like something new, something we have never seen. We know it’s not cheap. It’s very, very expensive, but it’s so good. —Nikita Blagodarnyi, who traveled from St. Petersburg to experience the 2014 Olympics
SOCHI, Russia — The athletes could not hear the cheers and the applause. They could not feel the pride. They could not see the smiles on the faces of those who watched them perform a near-perfect short program on the first day of Olympic competition in the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
That’s because these fans didn’t have tickets to the competition at Iceberg Skating Palace.
But the fact that Russian pairs skaters Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov couldn’t appreciate the adoration of these vocal fans didn’t matter to the delighted patrons, who were enjoying dinner in a temporary restaurant a few miles away.
The traditional Russian eatery is nestled among newly constructed hotels that house journalists and corporate sponsors from around the world.
While some dining at this restaurant that didn’t exist a year ago are volunteers for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, others are just people who’ve traveled from all across Russia hoping to enjoy the magic that comes with the promise of the games.
“I think it’s great,” said Nikita Blagodarnyi, who traveled from St. Petersburg to experience the 2014 Olympics. “For the first time in Russia it’s feeling like something new, something we have never seen. We know it’s not cheap. It’s very, very expensive, but it’s so good.”
While these games come with the highest price tag in Winter Olympics history — nearly $50 billion estimated by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak — they also bring unprecedented hope.
“We should show our country to other countries, to spectators, and maybe to potential investors who don’t know anything about our country, like whether we have bears (roaming) the streets,” he joked.
Athletes see the Olympics as the highest level of competition in sports. Because the contests are as much about fair play and equal opportunity, there is an air of sportsmanship that may not exist at most elite-level competitions. Athletes come to the Olympics for many reasons, but most often, it’s to prove they’re the best in the world at their sport. The fact that they get to do it in the name of their countries only adds to the mystique.
“I’m on cloud nine here,” said Brittany Bowe, a long-track speedskater competing in her first Olympic Games. “It’s fun seeing all the different athletes, all the different venues. It’s kind of surreal being in the Olympic Park. But then I get to the oval and it just feels like I’m home, and that’s where I’m at peace. I just can't wait to compete."
Fans, on the other hand, come because they want to witness history. They hope to enjoy remarkable achievements. They want to feel the joy of seeing something special happen to someone to whom they relate — even if it’s only because they share a homeland.
“Our country is open for other people, for the world,” said Kate Dranko, a recreational snowboarder who believes visitors will be pleasantly surprised by Russia’s hospitality and beauty. “It’s with great pleasure that we can invite guests to our country. It’s a great opportunity for all Russians.”
Countries and communities hope to host the games for a laundry list of reasons, but first and foremost is the economic development they hope comes from the exposure. Those who host believe there is transformative power in the act of inviting the world to a party paid for by communities that have a lot of other needs.
They know not everyone embraces the games.
Host cities, and the countries that support them, nearly always deal with controversy and questions. People are divided most often on whether the expense of hosting the games is ever worth it.
While the highest estimated cost of the Sochi Olympics is $50 billion, in an interview with Around The Rings, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the cost is closer to $6.5 billion. He eschews talk of finances and constantly tries to focus reporters on the fact that the Olympics will show the world a very different Russia, one he hopes people will like enough to come back and vacation in the city by the sea.
Dranko agrees that if visitors see the unique beauty of Sochi, they will fall in love with it.
“Sochi, especially, to my mind is a great city,” said Dranko. “It’s a unique climate. I don’t know of any other city in the world with such a climate as this.”
That climate offers visitors warm temperatures near the water and then, just 45 minutes by train or bus, they can be skiing or snowboarding in the breathtaking Caucasus mountain range.
Unfortunately, construction concerns, cost overruns, threats of terrorism and human rights protests have overshadowed any discussions of Russia’s jewel.
Social media was full of nightmare tales from weary travelers who simply wanted what they paid for. Instead, stories abound of journalists who arrived only to find their rooms were still under construction or so haphazardly put together some lacked light fixtures, power outlets and even doorknobs.
IOC President Thomas Bach spent three days touring Olympic venues and facilities, and he told reporters on Thursday that, "The Olympic stage is ready for the best winter athletes of the world."
And residents said that even if they're not quite finished, the new roads and a new $9.8 billion railroad are all things that will make the area more attractive to tourists, even if it's displaced and disturbed some of the region's residents.
“It’s very important that the objects that were built for the Olympic Games, the infrastructure, the railways, the roads, they will be used not only for Olympic goals,” Blagodarnyi said.
They can talk all night about why they are happy that the country they love is hosting the games.
But on the eve of the opening ceremony, most people only want to talk about the promise of the Olympics. They want to focus on the magic, on the beauty.
And in restaurants with temporary walls, plastic tables and big-screen televisions, they watch the figure skating team from Russia take first place in the short program.
They are giddy with the possibilities.
“Nobody should be afraid,” said Blagodarnyi. And he would tell the world, “You are welcome in Russia. There are no bears on the street. We are ready to see people from other countries here, and as you can see, we speak English here.” And then Dranko adds, with a giggle, “And we drink not only vodka. We are glad for all visitors to our country.”