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Amy Donaldson: Covering the Sochi Olympics was a mixture of admiration, appreciation and conflict

Published: Monday, March 3 2014 1:24 p.m. MST

The Olympic flame just hours before it was extinguished.

Amy Donaldson, Deseret News

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — We’d both been directed to the wrong shuttle, so we formed an instant crisis bond.

He was a Russian volunteer trying to get to the same cross-country venue where I hoped to see Park City’s Kikkan Randall compete that afternoon. As soon as he realized I was from the U.S., he pummeled me with questions.

“What do you think of Russia?” he asked, and then, without waiting for my response, “What do people back in the states think of these Olympics? What does the media say about us?”

I hesitated.

I didn’t want to tell him that the biggest story back home wasn’t the awe-inspiring opening ceremony, but the unfinished hotel rooms.

The chatter wasn’t about the beauty of this city by the sea but of the stray dogs that roamed from the mountain resorts to the coastal hotels, even jumping on and off trains like seasoned commuters.

His face was so earnest, I could not bring myself to tell him that people back home were mostly hearing stories of failure — from a malfunctioning snowflake to the empty seats in Olympic venues.

That conversation illustrated the conflict I felt the entire time I covered the 2014 Sochi Winter Games for the Deseret News. While I am an Olympic sentimentalist, it is impossible not to feel the conflict inherent in understanding what the games are supposed to represent and the reality of investing billions of dollars into sporting venues and events that a community may not want or need after the games end.

All of the Russian people I met — only about two dozen — embraced the games. They were convinced that the unique qualities that Sochi and Adler possessed — beachfront hotels just 45 minutes from ski resorts — would be an enticing backdrop for the always compelling athletic feats of the Olympic Games.

Once the world saw Russia, they believed we’d fall in love. The legacy of the games was never going to be facilities that would be utilized by locals. It was that businesses would see Russia as worthy of monetary investment, and that tourists would be drawn to ski vacations on the Black Sea.

The problem with the picture they’d drawn was the reality of global events in this day and age. With the attention of the world came the usual terrorist threats and security fears, and those were exacerbated by an actual history of violence in the region.

Security concerns deterred many would-be Olympic fans. And others stayed away because traveling to Sochi is not cheap.

Once you were there, all the admonishments to be careful, to stay inside the Olympic bubble, made it pretty difficult to imagine a relaxing family getaway.

It was like going to Disneyland and then trying to get some idea of what vacationing in California might be like. You can see California through fences, in this case Russia, but we rarely got to just wander where normal people were living their normal, non-Olympic lives.

The exceptions for me were the train rides from the mountains and into the actual city of Sochi. Despite my inability to speak more than a few words in Russian, many locals knew some English and were anxious to try and communicate. Here I found a glimpse of what it might be like to really experience Russia.

These were my fourth Olympic Games, although just the second I’ve covered in a foreign country. But what I did notice was a distinct lack of international visitors. Because a spectator pass was required to even wander around the Olympic Park, it was difficult to find people who weren’t relatives of athletes just taking in the games.

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