Sochi is not 'traditional' Russia

The opening ceremonies for the 2014 Sochi Olympics are set for Feb. 7, 2014. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

SOCHI, Russia -- We're exactly one year from the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics, and I confidently make this prediction: Sochi will absolutely destroy the record for most palm trees in a Winter Olympics host city. For that matter, it could make a run for most palm trees for any host city, winter or summer.

When Americans think of Russia in winter, images spring to mind of Dr. Zhivago driving a reindeer sled across vast fields of snow, fur-hatted soldiers in full-length coats wading through snowdrifts or lines of babushkas swaddled in more layers of wool than Randy in "A Christmas Story."

Erase those thoughts of vast snow-swept stretches from your mind. Sochi is not Siberia.

Sochi is a resort city of approximately 350,000 on the Black Sea, with the Caucasus mountains rising impressively in the distance. This is where Russians go to sunbathe in the summer. The city center is filled with vibrant green parks, carefully trimmed cedars and, of course, many, many palm trees.

Palms aside, Sochi is like Vancouver, British Columbia, only warmer. And with no Tim Horton's.

"There is no doubt that the Games will put Sochi on the map," said Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi Organizing Committee. "The city of Sochi has always been a very popular tourist destination in Russia -- with more than 3½ million visitors each year. And yet, few people in other parts of the world had heard of it before we won the right to host the Games. Already, we have seen the level of interest in Sochi change dramatically and we only expect this to increase when we host the 2014 Olympics."

The weather was so warm when I arrived here Sunday that I wore just a T-shirt and jeans for a walk along the seaside promenade. Had I packed shorts, I would have worn those as well. Oddly, though, the locals all wore heavy coats and hats, so how warm are they used to it being?

"We would want people from everywhere around the world, including from the U.S., to remember the unique atmosphere of Sochi," Chernyshenko said, "where someone can experience breakfast by the warm sea surrounded by palm trees and then ski on beautiful snowy mountains in perfect ski conditions in the afternoon."

The thing is, the 2014 Olympics won't actually be in Sochi proper. The indoor skating and hockey venues are clustered in the considerably less-green city of Adler, about 13 miles along the coast, while the skiing, snowboard and sliding venues are up in the mountains at Krasnaya Polyana, roughly 30 miles away.

The winter has been so warm recently at Krasnaya Polyana that some snowboarding competitions scheduled for next week were canceled due to lack of snow. Vancouver had the same issue in 2010, when a warm winter forced organizers to truck and chopper in snow. Chernyshenko assures they are storing reservoirs of snow just in case the weather is again unusually warm next year.

Regardless, the Jamaican bobsled team should be comfortable.

This is not 1980

The receptionist at one of my hotels did not speak a word of English, while my Russian vocabulary consists of little more than da (yes), nyet (no) and spasiba (thank you). Still, I managed to convey my need for a taxi to the bobsled venue when she set her desktop computer to Google translator. We live in an amazing world.

And it is a world that has changed dramatically since my youth.

Older Americans have vivid memories of the Cold War, when the Soviets were the fearsome enemy and potential nuclear Armageddon was such a part of our duck-and-cover, fallout-shelter lives that we kept track of the minutes to midnight on a Doomsday Clock.

The political and nuclear rivalry was so heated after the Soviets' Afghanistan invasion that beating them in hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics remains perhaps the greatest national sporting event in American history. Political cartoonist Paul Conrad perfectly captured the feeling when he drew a cartoon of the U.S. team raising the American flag on a hockey stick, a la the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima.

Even as late as the glasnost era of 1988, U.S. men's bobsled coach Brian Shimer remembers trading his team jacket for a Soviet Union jacket because "it just seemed like something untouchable for an American to have." Even the jacket's material intrigued Shimer. "I was like, 'What is this space-age material? Is this what keeps them warm in Siberia?' "

The United States boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, so the Sochi Games will mark the first time Americans have competed in an Olympics on Russian soil.

"I won't lie, it is a little intimidating coming to Russia," bobsled driver Elana Meyers said. "You think of armored guards everywhere. You have all these pictures growing up because all you see are textbooks. You think everyone will be heartless and cold and stern, but I haven't found it that way. There are a lot of guards and a lot of security at the track -- which makes you feel pretty good knowing we're at a secure location -- but other than that, the people have been very nice and there haven't been any problems. ...

"With all the history between our two countries, it's pretty incredible that I have the possibility to be here the first time we're competing in a Russian Olympics. Just being here, [knowing] how few Americans get to come to Russia and get to see this country, it's a pretty cool experience and I'm definitely blessed to be here."

Skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace says the Russian men insist on carrying her sled here, because "women are meant to have babies, not carry things." (Pikus-Pace does both -- she's the mother of two.) "Everyone has been wonderful, but it's just different," she said. "You smile at people and you can tell they've had a hard life."

Gold medalist Steven Holcomb was born the year the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games, was 9 years old when the Berlin Wall fell and 11 when the Soviet Union collapsed. He says he can barely remember those times. He also says he's noticed significant changes since he began his career in 1998.

"When I started bobsledding 15 years ago, athletes from different countries didn't talk to each other," he said. "You didn't talk to the Germans. You didn't talk to the Russians. You didn't talk to the Swiss. You talked to the Canadians a little bit because they were your neighbors from the north, but you didn't interact much. Now we're all good friends and all hang out and it's a different world.

"For me, coming to Russia doesn't seem like that big a deal anymore."

After all, the Miracle at Lake Placid was 33 years ago, more than a lifetime ago for most current Olympians. Millionaire Russians and Americans now play hockey side-by-side in the NHL. Or at least they do when they aren't arguing over how much money everyone should get.

A cozy host city?

I recall watching the 1976 Olympics from Innsbruck, Austria, and hearing Jim McKay describe the Winter Olympics as "the simple Games."

The simple days are past, along with the days of the Winter Games being held in cozy, romantic resort towns high in the mountains. Lillehammer was perhaps the last such host city. Since then, the host cities have grown bigger (and warmer). Now, only the mountain venues hold that old "simple" feel.

"No question, it's more commercialized and it just gets bigger, with all the sports they've added," said Shimer, who competed in five Olympics from 1988 to 2002. "I look back and wonder how Lake Placid in New York ever hosted a winter Olympics -- and it wasn't that long ago: 1980."

Sochi is spending a reported $18 billion on these Olympics, the most ever on a Winter Games. Unlike Vancouver, which utilized some existing facilities, every venue had to be built here. That includes a skating oval, hockey arena, skating arena and curling venue in the Adler coastal cluster, plus the ski jump, bobsled track and snowboarding venues in the mountains. "We've come a long way," Chernyshenko said. "We've built everything from scratch and to the highest standard."

The Olympics provide a way to jump-start development and infrastructure. A major road and rail line are being built to connect Sochi to Krasnaya Polyana, with officials saying the train will whisk fans to the mountain venues in about 30 minutes.

That will be nice. There is one very crowded and pot-holed roadway leading from Sochi to Adler. The road can get so congested and there are so few opportunities to exit that drivers who realize they missed a turnoff occasionally shove the car in reverse and drive backward on the shoulder against traffic. I asked a hotel concierge how long it would take for a taxi to go to Adler and he replied, "It's Monday. So, about an hour and a half with traffic."

In addition to the venue, road and rail construction, dozens of new hotels are under construction. An entire resort development with five-star hotels has arisen near the Alpine venue. A steady stream of cement trucks, dump trunks and earth-moving equipment snakes continuously up the road to Krasnaya Polyana. Although surrounded by magnificent white peaks, it is not exactly quaint. It surely will look much better next year, but for now, it is an enormous construction zone of unfinished buildings, fenced-off sections and muddy, sometimes broken roadways. A fresh layer of snow would do wonders.

Construction is on such a 24/7 schedule that after the bobsledders arrived Monday night they were awoken at 2 a.m. by the constant pounding. When the construction noise finally stopped Wednesday morning, the abrupt silence woke them as well. "I'm like, really? You're going to work all night and then stop in the morning?" Holcomb said.

The reason for the halt in the all-important construction? Vladimir Putin, whose political influence was crucial in landing the Sochi Olympic bid, was coming to visit the site. The Russian president blasted officials for cost overruns and delays.

Beyond the Games

Checking into Hotel Vesna was a little like stepping into a time machine. The hotel is large, sprawling and nice, but with a distinct Soviet ambiance.

The first sight upon entering was a security guard sitting at a desk so large that all you could see was his frowning face. The helpful receptionists wore the sort of pale orange vests that were popular in the mid-'70s. A security guard, not a bellman, showed me to my room.

The lobby also was filled with framed photos of athletes, medals from such Olympians as Alexander Karelin and autographed tennis rackets from some of the sport's biggest stars: Serena Williams, Martina Navratilova, Roger Federer. And, oddly, there also were two -- yes, two! -- framed Ben Roethlisberger jerseys. I tell you, those Steelers fans are everywhere.

"When I was very small, maps and globes always fascinated me," 29-year-old bobsledder Steve Langton said. "I only remember the USSR just because of its immense size on the map. That always stood out to me."

The Soviets loomed large as our main Olympic rivals in the old days, but after the breakup, the Russians have lost their winter dominance. They finished sixth in the overall medal count and 11th in gold medals at Vancouver. They want a much stronger performance as the host country, just as Britain, Canada and China benefited in recent Games. Home-field advantage means more than crowd support -- it also means better facilities for training, such as the bobsled track, which in turn leads to better performances as the years go by.

And Chernyshenko hopes the Olympics will mean something else for Russia.

"With the Games being hosted in Sochi, we want the world to see the new image of Russia brought to light," Chernyshenko said. "We hope that the world will see the important, long-lasting changes taking place not only in Sochi but across Russia."

The Russian wrestling team was staying at the hotel, so the hallways were filled with strong, compact men with cauliflower ears working their smart phones and stepping on a scale to weigh themselves after dinner. Many wore sweatpants and jackets that looked like they were issued in the 1970s.

But I also saw one wrestler wearing a Captain America T-shirt, a further reminder that though relations are strained enough that Russia recently banned Americans from adopting Russian orphans, the rivalry is somewhat different than what it was, and that these are not the 1980 Moscow Olympics that America boycotted: These are the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

The Games of Sochi are just 365 days away. Start the countdown. Brush up on your Russian. And if you attend, remember to pack sunscreen.