Just below my room in Sochi lies one of the sadder scenes of the Games that have not yet begun: a party bar built in the style of tsarist-era peasant village—complete with an ox-cart piled high with fake pumpkins and root vegetables.
Sad not because it’s a thematic miss, but because it’s empty. Night after night, the folk music blares for the benefit of idle servers dressed as milkmaids and fur-hatted town fathers. Occasionally, a Russian drops by and breaks the monotony by asking them to pose for a photo.
The temptation here is to set the scene up as a metaphor—the party that never happened; just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come. And so on.
But like everyone in this place, I’m waiting to see. Things might pick up in Kulakville, just as the Sochi Olympics might yet prove a win. The next 48 hours will be crucial as athletes, fans and media pour in and—inshallah—everyone decides to have a bit of fun.
The first impression has been poor. From the grubby, unfinished rooms to the dead turf slapped down on gravel, the scene that greeted early arrivals stood in sharp contrast to the well-ordered cleanliness in Vancouver. Water in some buildings is not safe to drink. Crews are burning piles of debris, giving the area the scent of a dump. If there is indeed a plan to rid the area of stray dogs, it’s no closer to completion than the media village showers.
Yet the Olympics have a momentum all their own, which is why IOC spokesman Mark Adams urged calm on Wednesday, saying, “it’s a little premature at this stage to say it’s a failure”—”it” being the Sochi Olympics. “Clearly, there are still some issues that need to be sorted out,” he added. “I can assure you that we are pushing this one. We want it to be solved” (he was responding to questions about half-built rooms, but he could have been talking about the crates of merchandise outside the Olympic souvenir store, or the construction debris within sight of the International Broadcast Centre).
Adams has reason beyond IOC self-interest to rag the puck. Canadians will remember those first, agonizing days in February 2010, as the death of a Georgian luger, some transport glitches and an erectile malfunction during the opening ceremony fuelled a pile-on by the foreign press. It’s now commonplace to say Sidney Crosby saved our pride with the Golden Goal, when in fact the momentum shifted as soon as the the athletes took over the show.
As for Sochi, the IOC knows the parts are in place for at least a partial turnaround. The venues are ready. The communications system inside the wire appears to work. The bus network—the circulation system of the Games—has run smoothly to date. All the Games need now are sports, and people, and while concern lingers that security fears have scared off average Russians, I’m not so sure: on Wednesday, in the city of Sochi proper, I passed through a snaking line-up for event tickets, full of merry folks flashing smiles and peace signs. Whatever insane amount the Putin government has blown on these Games, at least some Russians are determined to make the most of it.
That’s not to say things won’t yet go sideways. Accidents happen. Systems fail. The terrorist threat cannot be forgotten—not least thanks to the gunboats, communications dishes and surveillance blimps that encircle us here.
But the saving grace of every Winter Olympics are the soaring snowboarders and elegant skaters who, for a couple of weeks at least, give us respite from our worries and our boredom. Like the costumed staff at the peasant village below my window, all we can do now is wait, and hope.