SOCHI, Russia — Cover me, Jenkins, I’m going to the gift shop to buy a tube of Crest.
I don’t want to oversell danger a day before the Opening Ceremonies of the XXII Winter Olympiad. But when the first question to the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee today is, “Are you concerned about reports of bomb-making toothpaste possibly being smuggled into the country on planes headed directly to Russia?” well, it’s hard to focus on the Nordic combined trials.
Fact: These Olympics are the first to be held in close proximity to a war zone. Less than 200 miles to the east, Russian security forces engaged in a deadly shootout with radical militants a week ago. Four hundred miles to the northeast, bus bombings killed 34 a month ago.
Fact: Sniper nests dot the railroad tracks in and around town, men with more weapons than Keanu Reeves when he went through the metal detector in “The Matrix.”
Opinion: Between the volume of skis, assault rifles and snow, you’d think Sochi children grow up with just two career choices: biathlete or James Bond extra.
Fact: When the head of the House Committee on Homeland Security visited last month, he said he witnessed a “Wanted” poster of a female suicide bomber thought to have broached the city limits. The Austrian ministry confirmed two of its athletes have been threatened with kidnapping. Oh, and two U.S. Navy ships stationed in the Black Sea are available in case U.S. citizens need to be evacuated.
It’s all enough to make a red-blooded American puff out his chest . . . and pretend he’s from Iceland or Irkutsk.
Scott Blackmun, the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, clarified Thursday he has not, in fact, told U.S. athletes not to wear their stars and stripes in public. Instead, he told them, “If they’re outside of an accredited area, it could attract increased risk for them wearing their Team USA apparel.” Which is kind of the same thing, no?
Leaving home for three weeks always brings trepidation. But it becomes more concerning when the last thing your wife says is, “Your Chubb policy is up to date, right?”
When I registered with the State Department to assuage my concern — under the category, “American Citizen Wetting His Pants Abroad” — I received today’s Sochi Travel Advisory: “Floss, don’t brush.”
Fact: I’m scared. No, really. From Russia — with Fear, Loathing and Discrimination.
Months after legislation forbidding gay propaganda was signed into law, Russia’s deputy prime minister tried to quell concerns Thursday for gay people traveling to Sochi . . . by disturbingly linking homosexuality to pedophilia.
“Please do not touch kids,” Dmitry Kozak actually said. “That’s the only thing.”
I’m not saying this place is homophobic. But the committee to select the 2022 Gay Games at the moment probably has Moscow trailing Chick-fil-A corporate headquarters and the set of “Duck Dynasty.”
But, hey, you can’t beat the weather.
It’s 45 degrees and sunny now. By Monday it’s supposed to be 55 and partly cloudy. By Tuesday Sports Illustrated will probably shoot its 2015 swimsuit issue on the bobsled track. Only this year do you leave Washington for the Winter Olympics to get warm.
And while it’s early, we all agree our Russian hosts are so far the very best in the universe. Speaking in a sort of charming, broken English, the men are all manly. The women all look like Maria Sharapova and serve you tea and cookies. Did I mention Vladimir Putin rocks?
I’m not just writing that because of the unsolved deaths of Russian journalists during Putin’s presidency. Or the fact that the Russian News Agency has obtained conversations from journalists whose rooms were bugged, and that at this very minute, I could have a very elaborate wiretap on my iPhone, iPad and iTunes.
No. I’m writing that to give props to Edward Snowden for having such foresight to pick a privacy-first country to hole-up in, ensuring he would never have his e-mails read by a government again.
Kismet, no, Snowden gets temporary asylum and I get snowed — dumped into an 8-by-8 foot, TV-less room with a plastic, leaking bathtub, whose door won’t merely lock but not even close.
Are the Winter Olympics for the rich?
I have a shower curtain in a package, but no rod to affix it to. Living in the Sochi media village hotel is like being in college again: You go to the Black Sea IKEA on Sunday before spring semester starts, empty the boxes and leave assorted screws and little wrenches strewn all over the floor. Balboa had better digs outside of Moscow when he fought Drago in ’85.
If that’s not enough to get you fired up about these Games, the U.S. team will miss the star power of its most decorated downhiller Lindsey Vonn (injured), short-track speedskating king Apolo Ohno (now an NBC correspondent), and 2010 men’s figure skating gold medalist Evan Lysacek (retired). Bode Miller is competing, but he is about a week from assisted living.
And yet, against that reality-check backdrop, the Olympic flame will enter the stadium Friday night and this newly constructed subtropical gem of a city, if unfinished, will teem with pride and promise.
The faces of 88 nations will march into that stadium with both the most clichéd and true purpose: to use superior athletic endeavor in order to bring us all together once again.
Just like that, the caricature of the old, cold, intolerant Soviet republics will put on a mask of warm, young and open-armed Mother Russia — open to so much more than Moscow 1980.
After Alex Ovechkin’s hockey quest and so many more indelible moments play out, most of our two-week disposable heroes will again be cast aside and not given the love they deserve until 2018. And we again will complain about security, misguided political regimes and things not getting finished until the last minute in Brazil. And as usual, we will forget the true meaning of the Olympics: Gold, Jerry, gold!
Really, beyond the terror scare and the rightful protests against a nation where change comes embarrassingly slowly, it’s sometimes hard to remember it is their time.
Let there be no distraction or disaster to take away from the strength, skill and especially the sacrifice of the world’s greatest winter-sport athletes.
And after that, take what’s left of my hotel room, box it back up and give it to a young married couple just starting out, two kids who need that kind of support as they traverse the landscape of becoming life partners.
Here’s to Svetlana and Olga. No? Evgeny and Alex? Vladimir and Boris?
Cover me, Jenkins, I’m headed back to my unassembled room to brush my teeth.