SOCHI, Russia — President Vladimir Putin is counting off the final days until the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics on Friday, and that’s probably time enough to get the Internet working in the hotels.
But getting grass to grow? Perhaps not. There’s so much goopy earth everywhere, it could be time to call out the Olympic mud wrestlers. Finding homes for the packs of hungry stray dogs? That would get at the spirit of the Games.
Putin’s people are sure to think it rude, this nattering on about such trifles. After all, Russia has spent more than $51 billion on these Games, investing in infrastructure, building 25,000 new hotel rooms, conjuring up roads and trains to get from the indoor events on the Black Sea coast up to the mountains 35 miles away.
Putin and his deputies here have repeatedly promised that every detail will have fallen into perfect place. No doubt that includes hopes of rooms finished in time to house every spectator who has already paid for one, lamps at every bedside table (many are still undelivered) and bulbs for those already in place (not yet).
As every Russian is fond of saying, hope dies last.
From the air at night, everything looks ready. The Olympic coastal cluster glows hospitably. The roof is clearly finished on the stadium, a confidence-inspiring sign. Lights gleam in the hotel windows.
Check into one of the media hotels, and thank goodness the fire hoses are in place. Open the white cabinet in the bathroom, and Vot! (that’s Russian for “Voila!”) a miniature hose lies curled inside, ready to extinguish the threat of a bathroom blaze.
There’s also a sink — a tiny, tiny sink — big enough to wash your hands unless they’re particularly meaty. The little sink sits atop an exposed white plastic pipe, stuck to the wall and surrounded by an unruly gob of caulk. Might as well forget about a shower curtain. The way the bathroom is set up there’s no place to affix a rod.
The single room has two lamps — which don’t have light bulbs, but that’s okay because they aren’t near any unused outlets. An overhead chandelier has five shades, three of them with bulbs. There’s no phone. The television doesn’t work. A brainstorm interrupts an unsuccessful effort to plod through the manual — in Russian. There’s no battery in the remote!
Still no luck. Turns out the TV needs Internet to operate. Any moment, a manager assures, and WiFi will be available — at least in the lobby. And look, the bar (sliver) of soap is wee, but the hotel has provided a brand-new flashlight, batteries included. Try not to take that as worrisome. The rooms have their own fuse boxes, where some kind of meter runs inside, raising fears they’re going to charge extra for electricity.
A few days ago, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was growing irritable over alarms raised in the West about security, about how much was being spent, about corruption. Gallingly, the Russian media, which rarely dares to talk about such unseemly matters, was quoting the foreigners. Peskov, too, was hoping all would end well, discrediting the naysayers.
“I think that when this sports gala, as high-flown as it sounds, takes place,” he said, “all the answers to these questions, I hope, will be given.”
Most of the construction equipment has been cleared away, and the landscapers have moved in with trees and shrubs, stuck here and there among clods of earth, pools of rainwater and the mud. The turf men are nowhere to be seen, and the soil hardly seems prepared for them.
Debris-filled dumpsters still sit near some of the hotels. Men carry boxes in and out of the buildings late at night. In the morning, other men with brushes and cans of white paint stand in the rain, dabbing at the sides of hotels.
Packs of stray dogs roam the hotel grounds, friendly but too diffident to approach. They are wet and make you wish you had stuffed your pockets with treats from breakfast.
The media center, a 30-minute bus ride from the media hotels, is up and running nicely. WiFi rules! An inopportune 90-minute fire drill, however, distracts, turning the press onto the streets.
Enough. Time to remember that it’s been snowing in the mountains, despite all the dread that Sochi was just too warm for the Winter Games. Peter Frein, an American from Scranton, Pa., just out of college, has arrived to volunteer. He’ll be helping to maintain the alpine course, and he is enraptured at the prospect. Real snow! No chance now that his job would turn into shoveling snow from storage bins onto the mountains, as the joking had it.
The Russians working and volunteering for the Olympics are solicitous and helpful. They point out the specialties at the breakfast buffet, the curd mass with spinach, the herring under a fur coat (of chopped beets). A cleaning woman, overhearing a journalist ask about local cellphone service options, warns in a conspiratorial whisper: “Don’t get that one. It’s silent here.”
When one journalist arrived late at night, a few days earlier than the hotel expected, the young woman at reception looked stricken, then sad. “You don’t have a room,” she said. The journalist looked out the door at the pouring rain. “I’m here,” she said.
The young woman caught her breath. She disappeared into a back room for a few minutes. She returned with a large smile — and a room key.