Caution in the air for Russian fans
SOCHI, Russia -- When Russia House opened at the start of these Olympics, it looked as though it might live up to its advance billing. For the past several Olympics, Russia House, the national hospitality tent, where the drinks and the positive energy flow, has been the best party in town.
This year's version opened Feb. 6 in the grand and renovated old seaport building in downtown Sochi, and big hitters promptly gathered there. Viktor Vekselberg was in deep discussion with a colleague. He is worth $15 billion, and he owns more Faberge eggs than anyone else in the world. Nikita Mikhalkov, the Oscar-winning director of "Burnt By The Sun," wore a furry ushanka on his head as he listened to live jazz. Roustam Tariko hung around the bar, which was only natural, as he had stocked the party with his Russian Standard Vodka. Two super-tall models in golden cocktail dresses flanked Tariko, which also made sense, because he owns the Miss Russia pageant. Elsewhere in the crowd were parliamentarians, former Olympic champions, singers, actors and famous faces from Russian TV.
The crowd gathered into a combustible mix, yet there was no fire. It felt as though everyone was there to support this grand national endeavor, but not to have too much fun while doing it. This time around, Russia House has been a snooze, and there's good reason why. There is caution in the air. That's what happens when you host the party, as opposed to arriving as a carefree guest. You turn on the music and open the doors, inviting doubt most of all.
Did I order enough food? Does my place look all right? Will anyone come? And if they do, will they even like it?
There has been plenty to like here at the Sochi Games. The venues are brand new. The train between Krasnaya Polyana, Adler and Sochi runs on time and comfortably. The security hasn't been the body-cavity search that many thought it might be. A tent at the press compound sells wine for a buck a glass. The weather along the coast hasn't been in keeping with a Winter Olympics, but you can't complain about a walk along the sunny Black Sea shoreline. Beneath the stands at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, Dave Fischer, USA Hockey's senior director of communications, says everything has been perfect so far. As well he should. The U.S. men's team has yet to lose a game; everything looks great when you're winning.
It looks even better from up in the NHL box at the arena, where Chris Chelios roams, a work in stoicism. Roy Link has come to Sochi all the way from Plymouth, Mich., where his company tests car brakes. Link tests American cars, but he is here to watch his Detroit Red Wings of various nationalities (Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson, among them) as much as the American team, proving that although we'd prefer to win, a good game against the best competition is what we want from the Olympics most of all. "It's just a thrill to be here," Link says.
For the Russians, it's not a thrill; they're from here. This may explain why the Russian mood is generally subdued so far. Team Russia is just one medal off the lead in the overall standings, yet the men's hockey team has been having trouble mounting an offense. Caution has been turning to tension.
Outside a bar in Adler the other night, two Russian men exchanged insults. They were fighting over an Olympic spectator pass. The enlarged, laminated badge hung around one man's neck, and the other tried to rip it off of him. The offended man threw a punch. The other man returned it. Their supporters jumped in, and a street brawl appeared to be gathering. Out of the darkness of the evening, several Cossacks appeared in their gray jodhpurs and black riding boots. Without much effort, they defused the scuffle. Who knew? In addition to kindling pogroms, the Cossacks could simply keep the peace. A many-skilled militia.
Russia's struggles on the ice have not occasioned everyone to forget their manners. My drinking buddies from Draft pub in Sochi were gracious in defeat, texting "Congratulations" and "Good game, you had a little more luck" after Russia fell in a shootout to the U.S. on Saturday. Despite accepted wisdom, Russian people have affection for Americans, drawn to the cultural exchange. Used to be, we ran half the world, and they ran the other. There's plenty to discuss.
One thing that wasn't up for discussion back at Russia House on Sunday night was bananas. Irina Rodnina was there. Rodnina won three straight Olympic golds (1972-80) in pairs figure skating. Along with Vladislav Tretiak, she lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies. However, Rodnina, who is now a member of the lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, is better known in the West for a disgraceful tweet she dispatched in September. It was a manipulated image of Barack Obama, staring hungrily at a banana. Rodnina subsequently claimed that her Twitter account was hacked.
In Russia, there is no political correctness, and goodness, that sure can be refreshing sometimes. At other times, the societal ability to let anything pass weighs heavily on the soul.
Back at Russia House on Sunday night, Rodnina shared a late dinner with several current Russian Olympians, among them Alexander Tretiakov, who won gold in the skeleton on Saturday. Tretiakov had just come from the Russia House stage, where he joined other Russian Olympians. There, they dipped their gold medals into a bowl filled with champagne. Someone in the crowd mentioned that Olympic organizers had manufactured some medals from a possibly radioactive meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk one year ago. The athletes took turns sipping from the bowl.
Further whispers circulated that Roman Abramovich, the owner of the Chelsea soccer club and one of Russia's most powerful oligarchs, would appear at any moment. He did not materialize, however, nor did anyone else of towering importance. Those at Russia House gathered there as though they had to, with their cautious energy. A lonely trumpet played from the stage.
Brett Forrest is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. His book, "The Big Fix," is out in May.