Last month, UBC’s Jon Azpiri was in Sochi taking in gold medal hockey games, sad Russian hockey players and frightening bear mascots
For the last few weeks, I took leave of my job at UBC Public Affairs to take on a temporary post as a reporter for the Olympic News Service. The hours were long, the food was inedible, and the uniform made me look like I was starring in a community theatre production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. But the view from my desk was incredible.
During the Sochi Games, I was stationed in the press tribune of the Bolshoy Ice Dome, where I watched the best hockey players in the world compete in the men’s ice hockey tournament and wrote stories for the in-house wire service that provides event reports and athlete quotes from every single training session and competition at the Games.
Each day offered a moment when I asked myself: how did I get here? I’d go out for lunch to find a security guard posing for a photo with the Stanley Cup. I’d turn my head to see former Vancouver Canuck Petr Nedved on a bicycle talking on his cell phone. I’d hear Don Cherry’s voice behind me and instinctively reach for a remote control to turn the sound off, only to realize that it’s Don Cherry in the flesh and no mute button in the world could get him to quiet down.
The main storyline for most Canadian hockey fans was Canada’s quietly dominant gold-medal performance. While I certainly won’t forget Carey Price’s brilliance, it’s the losers who stick out most in my mind. There was the winless Japanese women’s hockey team, dubbed Smile Japan, who grinned from ear to ear after every loss and bowed to each other after scoring a goal.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was the Russian men’s team, which was crushed by the weight of expectations. Their most painful loss came against the USA with Russian president Vladimir Putin in attendance. Every time a goal was scored, I’d look to Putin’s luxury box to gauge his reaction. When Russia scored a goal, he would shake people’s hands as if he was responsible. When things didn’t go his way, he had a faraway look in his eyes, as if making plans to send Russian players on a long train ride to Omsk.
After Russia was eliminated in the quarterfinals, head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov solemnly told a pack of unhappy Russian reporters that “I won’t exist any more, since you will have eaten me.”
I’m told this is a Russian phrase that doesn’t translate well to English, but to my ears it sounded like something out of a Dostoyevsky novel.
A strange chapter in Russia’s history
What I’ll take away most from my time in Sochi is knowing that I got to witness a small, strange chapter of world history, one that saw the world’s largest winter sporting event take place in a subtropical region filled with stray dogs, dodgy hotels and creepy bear mascots.
Then there were the brief glimpses into Russian life. My colleagues and I often gathered at a karaoke bar to watch locals sing favourites like the 90’s power ballad “Wind of Change” by the Scorpions or the Village People’s “YMCA,” likely unaware that the song’s homoerotic overtones may run afoul of certain laws in Putin’s Russia.
The Games may be viewed as an ambitious project that will transform Sochi and the entire Krasnodar region into a winter sports mecca. Or it could be a multibillion-dollar boondoggle fuelled by hubris and corruption. That’s for history to decide. I still can’t believe I got a front-row seat to take it all in.