On Winter Olympics’ first full day, Sochi problems aren’t gone but are partially forgotten

Suddenly, Saturday morning, there was something to do in this picturesque resort town besides compile gripes about unfinished hotel rooms. Suddenly, the venues of the 2014 Winter Olympics, the gleaming arenas along the Black Sea and the shimmering ski slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, filled with the sounds of skates scraping against ice and boots crunching on snow. Suddenly, and all through the day and night, snowsuited daredevils were flying off ramps, sequined pixies were spinning over ice and wooden sticks were slapping disks of vulcanized rubber past goalkeepers.

After so much talk of stray dogs, shower surveillance and toilet curiosities — not to mention terrorism and human-rights concerns — the attention turned, as it almost always does the day after the Opening Ceremonies, on the traditional first full day of competition, to the athletes and the games. Goodbye, #sochiproblems. Hello, #sochiolympians.

Well, actually, hold off on that goodbye.

By the end of Saturday, even as American snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg was coming out of nowhere to become the unlikely first gold medalist of the 2014 Games and ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White were putting the United States within medal range with a strong performance in the first-ever Olympic team ice skating competition, Sochi’s problems proved to be alive and well.

It wasn’t merely the occasional half-empty arenas or the latest figure skating scoring controversy — the latter considered by Olympics connoisseurs, with tongue in cheek, to mark the true if unofficial start to any Winter Games — that defined the first full day of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s $50 billion extravaganza. There was also more bathroom humor.

U.S. bobsledder Johnny Quinn may have provided Saturday’s defining moment, eight days before the bobsled competition actually begins, when he tweeted — with photos, of course — an account of his escape from the suddenly locked-from-the-outside bathroom of his Sochi hotel room. Without his phone at the time, and lacking additional options, Quinn, a former NFL practice squad wide receiver, smashed through the door — using, he said, his “bobsled push training” — and climbed through the hole.

By Saturday evening, the tweet — with its photo of a smashed door that appeared to have been made of thin drywall and cardboard — was closing in on 18,000 retweets and Quinn had earned himself an appearance on NBC’s “Today Show.”

Another, decidedly less amusing door mishap Saturday morning nearly caused serious injury — or worse — for British bobsled brakeman Rebekah Wilson, who was about to step into an elevator at the Athletes’ Village when she saw at the last second that there was no elevator, only an empty shaft. Of course, this being 2014, she too tweeted a picture.

“Wowzers!” wrote Wilson, who was unharmed.

By 9:30 Saturday morning, when the first of a full slate of 11 events got underway, temperatures were already in the 40s, on the way to a high of 50, and a brilliantly clear sky — the kind skiers call “bluebird” — spread out from the shoreline to the mountains. Some four hours later, Kotsenburg, a 20-year-old from Park City, Utah, with an uncanny resemblance to Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli character from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” was leaning forward on the podium to have the Games’ first gold medal hung around his neck.

“I’m pretty surprised I won, honestly,” Kotsenburg said.

Kotsenburg’s victory in slopestyle snowboarding, one of 12 events making their Winter Games debuts this year, was a colossal upset; prior to clinching a spot in the Olympics in a qualifier three weeks earlier, he hadn’t won a snowboard event of any kind since he was 11. But it was nothing compared with the long odds of a subtropical resort town with almost no suitable infrastructure, and on the edge of an active war zone, winning the rights to host a Winter Games, as Sochi did in 2007.

As the Olympic Games begin, spectators and workers in the Olympic park enjoy the sunshine in what one person says is "the safest place in the world right now." (Reuters)

But after months of warnings about potential terror attacks, and after days of pointed questions about Sochi’s readiness, there was comfort in the fact the first full day of competition went off without major glitches. At Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, for example — where one top medal contender broke his collarbone during a training run earlier in the week, and where American snowboarding superstar Shaun White decided to withdraw rather than face a course he called “intimidating” — there were few wipeouts and plenty of praise for the softened course.

“The slopestyle course worked really well,” said Norway’s Staale Sandbech, who won silver Saturday. “Today I think everything ran smoothly.”

As for the omnipresent security — Putin’s so-called “Ring of Steel” around the Games reportedly features 37,000 security personnel — Kotsenburg said: “They’re definitely on a tight ship here, credentials out all the time and searched and everything. But it’s been very easy-going and mellow for the most part.”

Most Olympic Games follow a similar pattern: weeks of concerns over infrastructure or terror or something else, which are quickly forgotten once competition begins. The 2008 Beijing Summer Games, for example, engendered many of the same issues being raised here, but most people only remember the historic performances of swimmer Michael Phelps and sprinter Usain Bolt. It is a point that has been made frequently this week by both Russian officials, who have grown more defensive and pugnacious as the questions have persisted, and by many veteran athletes.

“It’s my fifth Olympics,” said American skiing star Bode Miller, who will compete in the men’s downhill Sunday, “and it seems like leading up to the Games everyone always has worries and concerns, and the speculation and all the focus is on everything but the sport and the athletes and . . . the ideal of the Olympics. I think this is no different. Certainly these issues were no more political than the ones in China, or Olympics as far back as you can remember.”

Another flashpoint for these Games, gay rights, was scarcely mentioned as Saturday’s events played out. Worldwide scrutiny of Putin’s anti-gay policies, and local crackdowns on protestors this week in Moscow and St. Petersburg, had observers watching closely for medal-stand protests and rainbow-colored symbolism. But none was in evidence Saturday, at least not on the athletes.

American snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg scores the first gold medal at the Sochi Winter Olympics, a win he calls "icing on the cake." (Reuters)

German journalist Christof Siemes of the Die Zeit newsweekly wore a self-designed T-shirt with a rainbow flag and the text of Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter, which states, “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

Siemes said part of his intention was to criticize International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, a fellow German, for what he considered to be an inadequate response to Russian laws discriminating against gays. Bach, Siemes said, “always said there would be no action on this law during the Olympics. I thought, ‘It’s a kind of test.’ We will see.”

If any of the many Sochi problems bears watching as the Games go on, it is attendance. The slopestyle competition got underway Saturday in a small stadium that was nonetheless about a quarter full for much of the day. And at the Iceberg Skating Palace — where team figure skating, another new competition, was perhaps the day’s marquee event — barely half the 12,000 seats were full at the start, although the arena eventually filled to near capacity by the end.

But once again, that is nothing new. In Beijing in 2008, young Olympic volunteers were frequently bused to venues for the sole purpose of occupying seats (though Twitter was too young for #beijingproblems to really go viral). Less than two years ago, on the first weekend of the Summer Games in London, organizers said British troops and schoolchildren had been given free tickets to fill many of the vacant rows at venues. But as Beijing and London proved, and as Sochi 2014 may yet, sometimes the lowering of expectations before the Opening Ceremonies only makes what happens afterward seem even more spectacular.

Rick Maese, Sally Jenkins, Liz Clarke and Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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Medals
Gold Silver Bronze Total
United States 8 19 17 44
China 10 11 7 41
Russia 2 11 3 35
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