SOCHI, Russia — When I was a junior in high school I worked up the nerve to ask a really pretty senior cheerleader to the prom. I knew we had little in common but hey, I was a star athlete so I thought I was in her league. It quickly became apparent I wasn't.
Our lone family vehicle at the time was an old pickup truck so my mom rented a Ford Granada for me to use (I learned later as an adult I wasn't old enough to drive a rental at 16). We took pictures in her home, which was more lavish than any I had ever been in. My mother wanted pictures too, which I desperately tried to avoid because that meant taking her to my Section 8 home, but given Mom's sacrifice to rent a car, I was obligated.
We had a second-hand sofa with a couple of exposed springs, which my mom covered with a blanket and we all knew to sit on while steering guests away from it.
My entire home could've fit in my date's foyer it seemed. My parents greeted us warmly but I could sense how ill at ease my date was — I was surprised to learn she had never been to my part of town. It's a very Tongan thing to offer food to guests and my mom made an attempt but my date politely passed. The situation was exacerbated by the language and cultural barrier given my folks' limited English and how badly they wanted to impress and make comfortable a teenage diva who grew up spoiled with little empathy.
The whining of American journalists over accommodations, venues, transportation, food, tight security, stray dogs and Lord knows what else at the Sochi Olympics reminds me of my junior prom date. Frankly, it makes me sick.
Russians are a proud people with a vast history of accomplishment in every field and discipline imaginable: architecture, science, medicine, engineering, literature, the arts and yes, sports — especially the Olympics. I remember fondly, as a boy, the iconic opening to ABC's "Wide World of Sports" that included the Russian Olympic weightlifter, the behemoth Vasily Alexiev, lifting a load over his head, then triumphantly slamming it to the floor as part of the footage that covered Jim McKay's famous line, "the human drama of athletic competition." Why do I still remember such an obscure name? Because a fat kid in my class named Mark Perkins bore a striking resemblance to the big Russian so we nicknamed him "Vasily Alexiev." But that's what we did as kids.
Now, we're supposed to be adults. Sadly, too many of us in the media seem stuck in high school.
Guess what? It's not about us.
No one from Slovakia or Uzbekistan or Poland is having a hissy fit over yellowish tap water or loose bathroom tiles. Know why? ’Cause that's probably just a Monday in those places.
As I travel the world, I'm so much more grateful that I live in America. But I don't ever expect that conditions will be exactly as they are in my Mt. Laurel, N.J., home.
Of course it's the Olympics, a global phenomena, but I've never been to another place — Olympic city or not — that perfectly meets all of America's lofty standards — our wealth, power, resources, freedoms and hope. The other day a 19-year-old volunteer studying at the University of Moscow was asked what her peers thought of America. She paused, then said thoughtfully, "to us, it's still the place of opportunity."
Russians seem to wisely distinguish between America and Americans. They see limitless possibilities in one and shallow narcissists in the other.
I work among a group of fellow NBC reporters from NBC-owned stations: New York, Chicago, L.A., Miami, San Francisco, etc. We're a tight-knit group from working multiple games together. We all love the experience and the places and people we meet. Our D.C. station, WRC, sent a young Russian media specialist named Alex Prudovsky, who immigrated to America at age 11 with his parents. He's fluent in Russian and so proud to be in his ancestral homeland. Alex became my running partner, so we've become good friends.
Alex told me his father sent him a YouTube clip of Whitney Houston's Super Bowl rendition of the national anthem with a reminder to enjoy Sochi but America is whom they're loyal to. Yet, he was blindsided and embarrassed by the incessant complaints over living conditions.
Earlier in the week, Alex sent our group this link #SochiProblems Is More of An Embarrassment For America Than It Is For Russia" with a plea to read. It's well-written. It perfectly addresses what I've clumsily attempted to do here.
I reassured Alex his country has been a wonderful host. Sure, there are problems. There always are. But I love Russians' national pride, how hard I see them working at whatever their task is; their culture, arts, cuisine, history and how breathtakingly beautiful their land is.
No way am I gonna be a spoiled teenage brat.
"The towels aren't fluffy." "My bed is so small."
Wah. Wah. Wah.
Shut up and tell me who medaled.
Praise for the missionary program
The other day I had lunch in the NBC commissary with NFL analyst Chris Collinsworth and his wife, Holly.
They have sons at Notre Dame, and we got talking about kids. They asked if my boys served missions and I proudly told them they served in Hawaii, Hong Kong and London.
With a serious look, Chris said to me, "You know, I wish Notre Dame would make missions a part of their curriculum. I think every 19-year-old kid should serve a mission for the sheer experience and what it does for them when they return. Your missionary program is a stroke of genius."
I was still nodding and smiling with a mouthful of food when Holly jumped in.
"Honey, I think you're preaching to the choir."