SOCHI, Russia — COLUMN | Every afternoon a craggy-faced, stoic man who wore an all-black suit eyed me keenly as I rode the escalator to the Main Press Center. I wanted to ask this never-smiling character whether he had done any character-actor work as a KGB agent in a James Bond film.
Two days ago, this man finally approached me, putting his large hand near my chest. I about panicked.
“Pin,” he said, in halting English. “May I have, yes? Olympic pin. Yes?”
I unfastened a U.S. hockey pin from the lanyard holding my credential and pinned it on my new friend Vladimir’s security credential.
I’m not joking when I say he now wants to visit me and my family in Washington.
Boundaries, Vladimir, boundaries.
It took a couple of centuries to get to know them, but these people are a riot.
Do svidaniya, Sochi.
I know your nation much better since this unforgettable visit, and I feel my relationship with you is as complex as your citizens. I love your people as much as I loathe your leaders.
You were warm; they were cold.
You were open; they were closed.
You both were, unintentionally, your Olympic slogan: Hot. Cool. Yours.
Not always ours.
Much of it was: the grand pageantry of your Opening Ceremonies, the self-deprecating humor of your Closing Ceremonies, poking fun at yourself for a fifth Olympic ring not opening more than two weeks ago. Sochi was incredibly well-organized and safe. The coastal venues howled with noise and theater; the mountains lacked snow but not drama.
And yet you couldn’t turn a blind eye to reality outside the venues.
There may never be a larger dichotomy at a world sporting event than these 88 nations coming together in the spirit of athletic competition at the same time part of the world was burning outside the Sochi perimeter. Thousands of special policemen and multiple, concentric rings of steel protected us from terrorists as much as they kept us in denial.
Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted it both ways: to showcase a new, warm open Russia, capable of performing big on the world’s stage again, capable of a jovial president who could laugh and joke at the USA House with American athletes — while pounding into oblivion many who disagreed with his ideology.
His police detained an activist punk band named Pussy Riot — two of whose members were whipped in the street. Putin and the deputy minister for the Games, Dmitry Kozak, cringingly linked homosexuality to pedophilia, their infamous “leave kids alone” line still as disturbing as it sounds.
Not all the extravagance in the world, not $50 billion, could hide that unseemliness.
So many stray dogs needed food and medical care, it was tempting to try to smuggle one into your carry-on.
Much of Sochi’s physical beauty seemed sacrificed for just 16 days. The entire coastline of the Black Sea leading up to the Olympic Park and the flora on the way up to the mountains looked as if a timber company had done a clear-cut, leaving only environmental devastation and rubble behind.
And yet the two most indelible moments for me are very personal and ensured good, lasting memories of these Games.
Through pure circumstance, I helped a 10-year-old cancer survivor meet his hero, Shaun White, who leaped over a barricade to make Ben Hughes’s life. Ben’s mother, Liz, e-mailed me last week a photo of Ben with a new personally autographed snowboard White had sent him and the two other Make-a-Wish children in Sochi; the subject line was, “Just when we thought it couldn’t get better for Ben!”
The second is of my cousin, David Wise, winning the gold medal in the first Olympic halfpipe ski event. I’ve never been in a family prayer circle before something I wrote about. I’ve never actually gone to a medal ceremony and yelled, “Cuz!” from a press tribune. I’ve never cried watching someone related to me mouth the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” — while on the top of the podium. I probably broke every journalism etiquette rule, and I really don’t care because this was possibly the most awesome thing I will ever do for work.
David is probably sick of his sportswriter cousin, who has only really gotten to know him the past month. I know my media colleagues are.
These were the Excuse-Making Games for some U.S. athletes. Whether blaming Under Armour’s speedskating suits or bad, sloppy snow — correct me if I’m wrong, every nation competed in this sludge — we just couldn’t get our head around the fact that some people in the world were either better, wanted it more or are just culturally predisposed to kicking behind at some things.
The Dutch do speedskating, don’t they — 23 of 36 total medals to a country of just 16 million. Of the Netherlands’ 110 medals in Winter Games history, 105 of them are from long-track speedskating. The other five medalists have no doubt been deported because they weren’t speedskaters.
The Germans (four golds, five of a possible 12 medals) lived large in luge, and Scandinavia (22 of 36 medals to Norway and Sweden) skis cross-country like no one’s business. Denmark has much work to do.
Nothing I’ve ever covered represented ABC’s old “agony of defeat” line more than the U.S. women’s hockey team losing a two-goal lead in the final four minutes against archrival Canada. Utter devastation.
But only at the Olympics can multimillionaires such as Alex Ovechkin and White leave without medals and Northwest Washington baristas walk away with bronze. Jessica Lutz scored the go-ahead goal for Switzerland, her dual citizenship home, in an upset over Sweden. Seeing her beaming Thursday night, posing for my smartphone camera with her medal, let’s just say a macchiato made by her now will never taste the same.
Olympics graphics roundup
Everything that happened at a sports venue was quickly put in perspective Saturday when I went up to the mountains and met a journalist/father from Ukraine, whose country is in mourning after almost 80 were killed, whose son simply won’t grow up in the same world as mine.
The Ukraine Olympic delegation, one of whom refused to compete for her nation after the bloodshed, wanted to memorialize the victims with small black armbands on their uniforms. The International Olympic Committee told them doing so would be in violation of the Olympic Charter. The same charter that specifies what is an acceptable way for an apparel manufacturer to display its logo allows no such window for athletes to express concern for their countrymen.
But if you could get past the daily Bolshoy that tumbled from the IOC, you could enjoy these Games for what they were: flawlessly choreographed, often glorious — contested amid an unsettling political backdrop.
I leave remembering both the dissent-crushing efficiency of Putin’s Games and the soul-warming Soviet-themed hockey bar run by my friends Sasha, Vlad and Igor, who took turns curling up on the couch in our hotel lobby so the place could remain open 24 hours a day.
“Mike, I will miss you,” Sasha said, embracing me like a man who will remain my friend forever.
Miss you too, Sash’.
You worry for the animals and the people who live here after you leave. But then you remember what a Russian woman said during some calamity or another two weeks ago. It was less of an axiom than an ethos for a carrying-on, proud people:
“V Rossi, u nas net problem, u nas yest’ priklyucheniya.”
“In Russia, we don’t have problems; we have adventures.”
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.