SOCHI, Russia — Carol Escobar stared down terrorism warnings and hotel horrors on her journey from Gaithersburg to the seat where she cheered U.S. Alpine skier Julia Mancuso on to an Olympic bronze medal on Monday.
She’s on a lonely mission.
Yes, American fans stand out at the Winter Olympics. Yes, there are few of them. But listen to this: They’re loud.
Escobar draped herself in a large U.S. flag. A Floridian named Michael Vigil wore a stars-and-striped hat fashioned like a fist giving a victory sign (“I found it on the Internet,” he confided.) He had a flag scarf, a flag cape and a flag kerchief. His big handlebar mustache looked positively modest, and he had yet to turn on his eyeglasses — he saves that for nighttime — which flicker with colored lights.
For Americans, these Olympics are far away. Escobar traveled about 5,500 miles from Washington. They are expensive. Her first hotel cost $450 a night and a not-the-best-seat-in-the-house ticket to the Opening Ceremonies was $785. And they are scary. Warnings about possible terrorist attacks have at times verged on the hysterical.
But the Americans are here, and making their presence known.
“Finally I decided to turn the TV off,” Escobar said, “and just go.”
Evolving sports of the Winter Olympics
Russians so far have accounted for more than 70 percent of ticket sales, according to Olympic organizers. But if U.S. fans are in the minority, that doesn’t mean U.S. athletes are ignored.
When Mancuso came thundering toward the finish of the downhill portion of the super combined event Monday, the crowd cheered wildly, excited by her time. A distinctly American-accented chant — “Julia, Julia, Julia” — rose above the general cacophony, which included an accordion, assorted trumpets, a baritone and various cowbells. Mancuso took the lead. She was slower in the slalom, but still earned the fourth Olympic medal of her career.
About 16,000 individual tickets to the Olympics were sold in the United States, according to Michael Kontos, a spokesman for CoSport, the U.S. ticket agent. It’s difficult, however, to estimate how many Americans are actually here. The number — which he said was about what the company expected — does not include those sold as part of packages or sponsorship programs. More individual tickets were sold for Sochi, he said, than for the 2006 Turin Games.
Keys to the skis
Even though the Sochi Olympics are the most expensive ever — costing an estimated $50 billion — ticket prices are not wildly out of line with the Vancouver Olympics, Kontos said. Sochi tickets went from $21 for the least expensive events, preliminary women’s ice hockey, to $1,828 for the best seats at the Opening Ceremonies. (Similar Vancouver tickets, he said, ranged from $25 to $1,294.)
Escobar, a 40-year-old massage therapist with a studio in Georgetown, ventured here on her own. In March she reserved nine nights at the Golden Tulip in Rosa Khutor. When she arrived, she got caught up in the great Olympic hotel upheaval. Unfinished hotels with influential guests were shifting those bookings to other hotels, which, domino-like, turned out people with no pull.
Escobar was told she had to leave after one night — there was no record of her reservation. “It happened to a lot of people,” she said. A sympathetic manager found her another room, this one in the coastal part of Sochi, in a hotel named after Lenin. What the Bolshevik would have thought of $300 a night rooms in his name can only be imagined.
No matter. Escobar is here, just as she dreamed. “I’m having a great time,” she said. “We’re winning gold.”
Vigil, 62, lives in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., and owns a carpet-cleaning business. This is his third Winter Olympics, and he’s accompanied by his two sisters and their husbands. The food is great, he said, and so are the people. When he left the Alpine center Monday afternoon, a long line of Russians waited in turn for a photo op with him. They loved him. He loves men’s downhill.
“I like the speed,” he said, “and the danger.”
If Americans think of themselves as outnumbered, they only have to look at Australians. Luke Ross and his wife, Sacha Martinovsky — who has Russian roots, one incentive for the trip — knew of only one other Australian at the Olympics. “It’s such a long trip,” Ross said, “about as far away as you can get from Australia.”
And then there are Olympic families. Even though some hockey players told their relatives to stay home out of security concerns, U.S. families are here, making their voices heard.
Olympic gold medalist Jamie Anderson, who won the women’s slopestyle snowboard competition Sunday, had eight family members rooting her on, including six siblings and a woman she referred to as her “spirit grandmother.” All made the trek from South Lake Tahoe, Calif.
The family of U.S. halfpipe skier David Wise had a traveling party of five from Reno, Nev., including Wise’s wife, Lexi. The couple is leaving their 2-year-old daughter, Nayeli, behind with Lexi’s parents.
“We’ve heard the news about the warnings,” Lexi Wise said last week in Reno. “There is concern, but we plan to keep our eyes and ears open and really take in an incredible experience. I can’t imagine not being there.”
Freestyle skier Maggie Voisin — at 15, the youngest U.S. team member — broke her ankle while practicing Friday. So her grandmother, Suzanne Wickham from Santa Fe, N.M., and parents, Kristin and Truby Voisin from Whitefish, Mont., are in the stands, cheering at the top of their lungs for her teammates.
There they were, cheerfully caught up in a sea of red, white and blue Monday. The stands were aflutter with Russians, waving their flag with its wide stripes of white, blue and red — and Americans, determined to be heard.
Mike Wise and Liz Clarke contributed to this report.