Sochi 2014 Look Back – Opening Impressions

The Olympic Rings greet visitors when they first leave the airport
The Olympic Rings greet visitors when they first leave the airport

The Paralympics have begun in Sochi, reigniting the cauldron in the park as the city begins its encore performance as host. It’s been almost two weeks since I came back from Russia and now that I’ve recovered from jet lag and had some time to reflect, I wanted to share and remember the trip. So as I did after the London 2012 games, I’ll look back at some of my favorite moments from my Olympic experience, starting today through the end of the Paralympic Games.

A custom menu for our NBC charter flight to Sochi.
A custom menu for our NBC charter flight to Sochi.

Getting to Sochi was a journey in itself. I only had one day to pack after leaving my job as a sports anchor/reporter in Wisconsin. By 2am central time, I was on the road to Milwaukee, which is a three and a half hour journey from Wausau. Then from Milwaukee, it’s a short flight to Chicago (literally, up then down). Then after a couple of hours in Chicago, it’s a two and a half hour flight to Newark before beginning the final (and long) leg to Sochi. Along the way, I started meeting more members of the NBC army, from broadcast managers to directors and producers. The “Team NBC” jackets and backpacks are a dead giveaway. By the time I got to Newark, the NBC party took over the United Club lounge.

The flight to Sochi itself was, well, long. Very long. Like 10 hours. But it’s a charter flight so you either knew the people you sat with or you were about to meet them. It was actually the most relaxing 10 hours I’ve had in awhile. Plenty of wine to help you fall asleep and decent entertainment on the way there. I watched a good amount of primetime television as well as a few Olympic movies to get me in the mood, including “Miracle” and “Cool Runnings”. By the time we landed, I was ready for the Olympics.

I wish I could say the same about the host city. First off, I had to wait nearly an hour for my luggage. It appears that an airport the size of a small regional hub couldn’t handle the influx of over 300 passengers at a time. Then when we got to the hotel, those #SochiProblems started showing up. Now I have to say, I was lucky compared to all the other reports that I saw on Twitter or read about. But there were a few issues that I did have. My TV didn’t work. The  signal wasn’t strong enough apparently. I didn’t have a trash can, so I’m not sure where garbage was supposed to go. A few of my colleagues reported getting brown or yellow water. Apparently the pipes had never been tested or used before.  And the staff members’ English? It needed a bit of work. I understand being a guest in the host country but there needed to be more effort on their part.

The fitness center was ready, if you could find it. Apparently you had to head downstairs, go through a set of double doors, turn right, go through another set of doors, then immediately turn left, go through a cold, damp hallway and open another door, past some construction materials and you found a very nice but empty room with gym equipment. It never officially opened until the Games started but if you knew where to go, then your morning workout was a maze away.

Over the course of the next few days, I’d discover that organizers were working until the very last minute. Bricks were still being

Bricks were laid and then re-laid in the resort town of Rosa Khutor.
Bricks were laid and then re-laid in the resort town of Rosa Khutor.

laid down in the town of Rosa Khutor. And venues still had to put a lot of infrastructure in place. Wi-Fi wasn’t available at the Mountain IBC until just a few days prior to the Olympics actually starting. 

My first impressions were that Sochi was warm. Literally. It was warmer at these Winter Olympics than in most of the northern United States. The people, however, were a bit colder. They never really smiled. But honestly, I figured they didn’t know how. They never had much to smile about during these Games, especially those who were around during the Soviet era. Being warm and friendly is something new to the Russian people and it’s something that would come over time.

The Super Bowl

There were a lot of ways that being in Russia felt like home. There was a McDonalds restaurant not too far from the office. There was also an Irish Pub with a bunch of televisions which made it feel like a Russian Buffalo Wild Wings. And being with your fellow NBC employees made it seem like the U.S. wasn’t too far away. We were there experiencing it together, like a big American family.

That never felt more true than the Monday morning (Sunday night back in the states) of the Super Bowl. A hard-working young woman from the NBC logistics office set up her computer in the hotel bar and plugged it in to a big screen television. By 3:30 A.M. in Sochi, there were just a few of us gathered to watch the big game. But midway through the first quarter, there were at least 30 of us. What better excuse to drink a beer at four in the morning. The game may not have been that exciting, but it was a cool thing to see a football game bring a bunch of Americans together in the middle of Russia.

Team NBC watching the Super Bowl in the middle of the night.
Team NBC watching the Super Bowl in the middle of the night.

Just a little glitch…

In the final days before the games began, it was all about trying to get into a bit of a rhythm, a routine. Getting shoots set up for our stories which would air on the “Olympic Zone”, prepping the edit computers, figuring out the bus system that would take us to venues. At the same time, we tried to enjoy what little free time we had, knowing we’d have none once the games start. We went out to dinner nearly every night, shared stories from previous Olympics, and tried to talk through what we were experiencing at the moment.

By Friday, February 7th, we were ready for the Games to get going. We already had one show down, thanks to NBC primetime coverage beginning a day early. There was a certain energy that had invaded the mountain air. It was time for Russia to showcase itself to the world.

Most of us gathered at the hotel bar, same place where we had watched the Super Bowl five days earlier. We ordered some Russian beers, a bunch of expensive appetizers and got comfy. Of course finding which channel the Opening Ceremony aired on was an Olympic event in itself. We ended up finding the festivities on a German channel, ZDF, right as the clock struck 20:14, when the Ceremony officially got under way.

After the dramatic performance of the Russian national anthem, which drew applause from the Russian staff members of the hotel, it was time for the traditional unveiling of the Olympic rings. In Athens, the rings were lit on fire in the middle of a body of water that had filled the stadium floor. In London, five rings gathered in the sky to form the famous logo, with fireworks falling from the rings. This moment usually makes the highlight reels of every Opening Ceremony.

The glitch heard round the world.
The glitch heard round the world.

And when the moment arrived, it was clear something went wrong. Only four snowflakes became Olympic rings, the fifth remained closed. At the hotel bar, there was a collective gasp and screams of “Oh no!” as the glitch had revealed itself. Not the way the Russians wanted to start the Opening Ceremony.

It was one of those “Well that just happened” moments. On the bright side, the night only went up from there. And it really did. You couldn’t take your eyes off the artistic presentation and everyone enjoyed making their snide remarks during the Parade of Nations. There were loud cheers for the United States, as well as Canada and of course the host nation, Russia.

And we were inspired, as always, by the dramatic lighting of the Olympic cauldron.

Let the Games begin.

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