A Familiar Feeling at the Games ; Decidedly Un-Exotic, Russia's Showpiece Has a Distinct Western Flavor

By Segal, David | International New York Times, February 15, 2014 | Go to article overview

A Familiar Feeling at the Games ; Decidedly Un-Exotic, Russia's Showpiece Has a Distinct Western Flavor


Segal, David, International New York Times


This Olympics is either avidly catering to the West, and the United States in particular, or Russia has adopted American sports culture as its own.

Snicker all you like at the well-publicized oddities and spectacular expense of these Winter Games, but give it up for the train that delivers visitors to the Olympic Park.

A digital sign on the platform at the penultimate stop says that it will arrive at 1:14 and leave at 1:15, and it delivers on that promise, right down to the second.

The track, which links the Park to the town of Sochi, about 20 miles away, is said to have cost $8.7 billion in Russian treasure. That seems a preposterous sum, but you are not Russian, so it's not your treasure.

On Wednesday the train carries thousands of grinning Olympics- goers, delivering them with timing more associated with the Swiss. The masses strode into a cloudless, 62-degree Fahrenheit afternoon, one of those exquisite days that feels like a preamble to summer.

When you first lay eyes on the Olympic Park, next to the Black Sea, in what is called the coastal cluster, it looks like a Disneyland for corporations. That's because after descending from the train station, down flight after flight of stairs, you see a gantlet of pavilions run by sponsors. What you see next is an amusement park, which, inexplicably, is closed.

Yes, closed. A yellow curlicue roller coaster, and a purple U- shaped tummy churner and a bunch of other rides -- all of them as still as a parked car. Did someone forget to tell these folks it's show time? Are they taunting us? Is this an elaborate piece of performance art, or maybe raw material for a reality TV show called "Watch People Gape in Dismay?"

You don't know. So you keep walking, and it's 10 minutes before you lay eyes on the Olympic venues, all of which are on the other side of a pedestrian bridge, divided into lanes, with flooring in shades borrowed from the Olympic rings.

Once you reach the other side, a profound realization dawns: Russia is desperately in need of change.

Not change in the abstract, drawing-board sense of the word. No, it needs change in the most literal sense. It needs small bills. A lot of small bills.

Just try to buy a hot dog, or pizza, at one of the many stands dotted throughout the Park. Time and again, you offer to pay for something that costs 100 rubles -- not quite $3 -- with a 500-ruble note and you get a sorrowful, slightly wounded look that says, "Miracles? You expect miracles?"

Once you get over the small-change shortage, what strikes you is how surprisingly un-exotic the Park looks. Maybe it's because the Olympics are, to some extent, a prefab conceit, and when you build a bunch of winter sports arenas in a self contained area, a bit of homogeneity is unavoidable.

But it goes beyond that. At a women's hockey game, when a goal is scored, the song of choice is that "Woo Hoo" number by Blur. (O.K., "Song 2" is the actual title.) During lulls, an old-timey organ plays ditties that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been to a baseball game. There's an oompah band at the speedskating arena, led by four blond women with batons, which performs "When the Saints Go Marching In." In the evening, a man will beat box on a stage.

This Olympics is either avidly catering to the West, and the United States in particular, or Russia has adopted American sports culture as its own.

"That shade of blue," says a Russian man waiting in line for food, when asked to point to something distinctly Russian in the Park, "it is very Russian." He's pointing to some bunting.

O.K. What else? He looked around, and then shrugged.

What is most exotic here might actually be the lines for food, which are hopelessly chaotic and slow, but which are endured by Russians with total equanimity. (They drive everyone else insane.) Or maybe it's the "small rusks" offered in the vending machines, which are jellied-meat-flavored croutons. …

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