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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.

It is one of the aspects of Salt Lake and Vancouver that I loved most. Jumping on a bus or sitting in a crowd was like traveling to places I’d never been as it was possible to meet people from all over the world in one afternoon.

There are all kinds of ways to experience the Olympics. Buying a ticket and watching a sporting event is only one of them. I remember being encouraged to wander art galleries and listen to musicians brought into Vancouver just for the games.

If there was a cultural Olympiad, I couldn’t find it. I understand and concur with some of the criticism of the IOC for awarding the games to a city like Sochi. I'm not so sure building Olympic venues from the ground up in seven years is a good thing. But I also saw the benefits firsthand in Salt Lake City of how hosting the games can benefit a community for many years.

What bothered me more than feeling like I was unable to really know Russia was the way American journalists treated our hosts. It is, most certainly, our job to ask questions and challenge authority, and sometimes that makes us seem like contrarians. But in Sochi, the level of cynicism and criticism became something of a sport — engaged in mostly by American journalists.

They complained about everything from the type of toilet paper to the shoddy construction. Who knew door handles, shower curtains and clean towels were a luxury?

As I watched legitimate issues get lost in the frenzy of ridiculous, nit-picky complaints, I was almost embarrassed to be a journalist. It was as if we’d been invited to someone’s home and then wandered around pointing out all the ways in which they’d failed to make us feel at home.

The reality is, most of the world doesn’t use two-ply toilet paper. Most of the world can’t flush just about anything in a toilet and not do serious damage to the septic system.

Every community doesn’t care for their pets the way we do. It struck me as hypocritical to criticize Russian officials for rounding up stray dogs and possibly euthanizing them, when we euthanize thousands of unwanted animals in the U.S. every year. And, maybe even more ironic, is that it’s the complaints from journalists about strays wandering in and around hotels that led to the crackdown in the first place.

That’s not to say I didn’t think the action warranted criticism. As the owner of multiple rescued pets, I supported the efforts of the journalists who revealed the roundup, which led to the involvement of organizations that helped save the dogs.

Sure, our host city didn’t recycle, but I was told by my hotel clerk, it was American guests who demanded larger garbage cans and daily trash removal.

I was in Russia to cover our Utah and U.S. athletes. And as I did, I tried to accept what was given without judgment. That’s not easy because what I realized very quickly is that we’re spoiled. From the simplest pleasures — like a fountain soda — to the most basic freedoms — the ability to go where we want, when we want — we’re privileged.

And, I guess, instead of being critical of communities that do not enjoy these same luxuries, I would have appreciated it if we recognized how blessed we are without belittling those who are not so lucky. In Russia, it felt a little like we came looking for faults. And when we found them, we dragged them into the town square that is social media and threw stones like we have no sins of our own. Anyone remember the fact that athletes were late arriving to competition venues because the bus system was so bad in Atlanta? Or that they forgot to make Centennial Square wheelchair accessible so they taped plywood over stairs? Or how about the fact that in Vancouver, the Olympic flame was behind a huge fence? Or that tickets at Cypress Mountain had to be canceled because the spectator area had melted away?

Despite the fact that problems of some sort always occur, there are reasons to love the games and the goodwill they engender. One of the most beautiful aspects of the Olympics is that it brings the world together. When that happens, there will be differences, some of which are uncomfortable and unexpected. If I am fortunate enough to cover or visit another Olympic Games, I hope to see my countrymen and colleagues recognize the beauty of the community that welcomes us, even if there are issues that as journalists we must address.

As we rode the wrong bus through Krasnaya Polyana, I smiled and told my new Russian friend what I liked about his city — starting with the fact that Russian pancakes are topped with condensed milk and ending with the beauty of the sea. We talked and laughed, and when we finally stopped and figured out that we needed to take separate paths, we said our goodbyes. He shook my hand and said, “We love Americans. We want to be your friends.”

Twitter: adonsports EMAIL: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

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