I spent the last two weeks in Sochi, isolated from North American media, and had assumed that by this time most of the myths surrounding how horrific things were over in Russia had been dispelled. But now back in Canada I'm still reading about such atrocities as inconsistent internet, bad service at restaurants, uncomfortable single beds, as well as rumblings about Canada's performance at these Olympics. Below I'll touch on some of my thoughts and experiences regarding what Sochi and the Olympics were really like.
Surprise! Russia is a Developing Nation
If you have never traveled outside of North American suburbia you might find Russia a distasteful place and I wouldn't suggest it as your first travel destination. But if you've spent a little time seeing how the rest of the world lives I think you'd recognize Russia for what it is; a developing nation with lots of history, culture, and kind, proud people.
The IMF and World Bank describe a developing nation as one with a medium to low standard of living, and Russia is on this list along with about 150 other countries. There are problems. The service isn't great and things often seem to break. Most Russians haven't the means to travel outside their country, so they don't necessarily recognize these things are problems.
Russians that lived through the 1980s and 1990s see how far their country has come and are hopeful about the future. The small minority that have traveled outside the country know they have a long way to go to catch up to Western countries and aren't as optimistic.
I'm not completely up to speed on civil rights issues and understand that given the Olympics are being held in Sochi, it isn't necessarily representative of Russia at large, and so I won't claim that my two weeks here make me any sort of expert. But much of the time I did spend in Russia was conversing with new Russian friends that came from all across the country, giving me a much different perspective than the typical media whom were lodged amongst one another in large new hotels built for the Olympics.
There were quite a few of them, as there have been in my travels to Central America and Asia. But these ones were much better behaved and looked healthier than most strays I've seen, which is probably why so many people fell in love with them. It was +15C almost the whole time I was here; Canadian SPCA's all have dogs that need rescuing more than these dogs.
Every single person I asked said his or her accommodations while in Sochi were fine. The few media that arrived early and had issues were the first ones to do any reporting from Sochi, and seriously over-inflated the issues by most actual accounts here. My room was way better than I'd expected. The showers were hot, I had my own room and bathroom with shared access to a kitchen, and the place felt very secure; I've stayed in much worse in North America.
I went to six live games including both the men's and women's gold medal finals. Bolshoy arena holds about 10,000 people. I would estimate the Canada games were attended by 70 per cent Russians, 15 per cent Canadians, 15 per cent other. It was always interesting to see whom the Russians would cheer for. In the early games they cheered against Canada with grins on their faces, but in the later rounds - particularly against the USA - they cheered for Canada. Actually, what they really cheered for was goals. The loudest chant in the rink every night was shay-boot! which translated means puck in net!
The atmosphere in the rink wasn't great. Two large middle sections were taken up by press desks, which killed many of the Russians' efforts at the wave and much of the ambience that waving flags and cheering fans adds. Watching the Canadian men win a gold medal in Russia was incredible and something I'll never forget, but given the noted atmosphere and the way the men dominated the last two games it was slightly anticlimactic. I loved that it was Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby - two of the greatest leaders the game has seen in decades - that scored the game's big goals. The women's come-from-behind victory and the performance of Marie-Philip Poulin was incredible to see. The entire arena was astonished, and you couldn't help but feel for the devastated US team after they controlled the first 50 minutes of the game.
Canada's Performance and the Government's Role
Up until 1992 the most medals Canada had ever one in one Winter Olympics was 9. In 2010 in Vancouver we set a Canadian record with 26 medals, and an Olympic record for the most gold medals ever with 14. Typically the prior Olympics' host nation must enter a rebuilding phase not all that unlike a hockey team would, as many aging athletes extended their careers in order to participate on home soil before promptly retiring. This year we earned a very respectable 25 medals including 10 golds, many of them coming from young athletes with a bright future. I'd call this a success.
I was fortunate to have access to the Canada House for a number of medal celebrations. Every athlete that got the microphone credited the Own the Podium program as contributing significantly to their success. I was surprised and skeptical of their sincerity as I rarely hear anything positive said about governments anywhere, but in following up I learned they were very sincere in saying they would not be on the podium without the OTP program and the Canadian government that supported it. Major sponsors like Bell, Canadian Tire, RBC, and Hudsons' Bay contributed significantly as well, but I learned it is much easier to sell private sponsorship - which at times can be fickle - when there is a strong underlying backbone and potential for athletic success.
The Olympics Overall
I agree with Ken Campbell of the Hockey News' recap:
...the Sochi Games will be remembered for not living up to the hype. In a good way. In a most excellent way. These Games were supposed to be the $51 billion debacle....
The volunteers were great and there were tons of them. The transportation infrastructure was top notch. Security was both thorough and quick. I probably went through security 50 times on my trip, and the only problem I had was with an agent in England that tore apart my carry-on bag full of delicate (i.e. cheap) Russian trinkets in it. The event venues were all brand new. The weather was great. The Russians were extremely accommodating. While this was my first Olympics and as such I can't compare Russia to other host nations, I will say I had a great first experience in Russia and look forward to returning to stay with new friends and explore more of the country's major cities and history.