Sochi Stories: Hot, Cool, Yours, Whatever That Means

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I watched grown men in full ski regalia hug each otheras Canada's men take gold and silver in moguls. I am almost moved to tears by the gesture of the fourth place Canadian congratulating his teammates so heartily. Two McLean's journalists informed me that in actuality there is no love lost amongst the top participants. One of the journalists, who resembled a Canuck Gene Wojiechowski, called us "fucking hipsters" for drinking Dewar's, which is the cheapest scotch on the menu. It's unclear whether that makes it more or less fucking hipsterish.

The two open up briefly about being dyed in the wool print guys that have found themselves, almost inexplicably, thriving at a media conglomerate that is 95% digital; they are two-thirds of their magazine's three dedicated, full-time print sports reporters. They finish their beers, and explain that they must depart in order to feast at their hotel restaurant, which they've come to call the Dirty Duck. They profess extremely poor Cyrillic literacy, and call the restaurant this because of the shabby neon goose outside the establishment.

***

The US Women's Hockey Team absolutely mopped the ice with Switzerland. It may be pyrrhic, but the Swiss are victorious in one sense. Their national Olympic committee's fashion sense. Their black-on-black varsity-style jackets are understated in the best way. It's something.

***

An elderly gentleman with a tray full of chicken schnitzel and spaghetti a la carbonara gives me a nod one evening and asks, in a non-regional but faintly Mid-Atlantic accent, where I am from. After explaining my situation, and noting his St. Anselm hockey cap, I ask if he is with USA Hockey.

He chuckles, regains his composure and calmly explains that he is a gopher for the Kazakhstani national team. A little miffed by this revelation, I thank him for his time and we part ways. 

Days later, a colleague relates to me that on the bus up to Rosa Khutor he met the same man, who introduced himself as an Olympic pin collector and a veteran of 10 different games. He explains that in order to fund uniforms and other essential needs, many countries sell credentials to the highest bidder. He is later overheard taking a phone call in which Kazakhstan's team management are demanding their credentials back. "How will I get back into my hotel without credentials?" he pleaded. How, indeed.

***

Olympic pin collecting is a big deal; before my arrival I hadn't the faintest about this aspect of Olympic culture. One of the few perks from running the photo booth has been the athletes' general generosity w/r/t pins from their countries. Whenever I flash my ever-elusive Jamaican pin, I watch as total strangers fume in foreign tongues over how they might acquire that most precious of trinkets.

Of the 87 participating nations, only Uzbekistan, whose pins are supposedly stuck in customs, are more prized than the pins from Rob "Bumbaclot" Ford's adopted homeland. No one who cares about this sort of thing, it turns out, is too proud to beg where these pins are concerned. That goes for athletes, coaches and volunteer workers; wide-eyed and gap-toothed country girls wait earnestly at the dining hall exit; they are at least kind enough to remember my beleaguered face and only ask for the pins once.

*** 

One particularly unsavory pin based incident came about when my Shabba Ranks-ian Jamaica lanyard prompted an American athlete I didn't recognize to proclaim, "I have a pin you are really going to like."

"Oh?" I countered.

"I'm not going to trade it to you or anything like that," he smugly relayed, before revealing a mini snow globe with the NBC Olympics logo. I find myself contorting my face in disgust. "That pin sucks," I say. He is shocked and briefly agape before opining the pin's ostensible value far trumps any in my fair collection. I agree with him and walk away. I do not recognize this pin-snob version of myself. Is this the beginning of my unraveling, the end of my humanity? I will be here for another two weeks.

***

At Finland vs. Austria men's hockey and Linda Perry's penetrating, perverse alto comes on briefly, inexplicably buttressed by an EDM backing track. What's going on, indeed. This is Putin's greatest shame, greater than that opening ceremony gaffe.

The Austrian defense is a sieve, their offense an all-you-can-eat turnover buffet. I type this with trepidation, surrounded on all sides by National Olympic Committee members from that proud nation, presently down there on the ice getting their collective ass not-quite-kindly handed to them. Life is very long when you're giving up goal after goal. Whoever is running the sound in the arena plays 4 Non-Blondes five times in the second period alone. No one deserves this. Not the Austrians, and not anyone else.

Linda Perry-based anxiety aside, the lack of sponsorship requirements -- there are no advertisements during the game, although there are some conspicuous cheerleaders in the aisles wearing generic blue uniforms -- allows for a version of elite hockey previously unseen by this American. It helps that the hockey is so good -- the Americans play with astounding aggregate physicality and speed; Canada has crazy talent and Norway plays the role of chip-on-shoulder bruisers to the hilt. But the whole experience is wonderfully pure and uncluttered.

Even the public address announcer is only heard when a goal is scored. The relative silence, besides the occasional international pop hits and stadium-organ chestnuts during breaks in play, leaves the soundtrack to the crowd. To hear the roar of the Russian home crowd on every breakaway was stirring; to not-hear the constant burbling PA noise that defines American sporting events was pretty nice, too.

***

The slogan of these games, if you were wondering, is "Hot, Cool, Yours." Say it aloud, if you want; really let it sink in. In its utter vacuous vagueness, it is enough to overwhelm your higher brain. This slogan brazenly says, "your sarcastic witticisms are utterly futile." It is so exceptionally meaningless, in fact, that I have started to believe it's profound. I'll figure it out in time.

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