Sochi Stories: One For The Road

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Alex Sugiura is in Sochi as an employee of the IOC, and is sending us periodic dispatches on what he sees, hears, drinks and eats in OlympicsWorld.

Middle of the pack Nordic Combined participants are rarely mentioned, if at all, upon completion of their races. Han Hendrick is one such anonymous competitor; through a mutual friend we shared a gondola down to Rosa Khutor's "party" district Esto-Sadok. After three bus stops, we arrived to find a group of middle-aged men watching Latvia upset Switzerland to earn a quarterfinal berth in Men's Hockey. Hendrick is given a hero's welcome, and I am somehow asked to sit and join in a toast of the fine lad. I am given tomato juice as chaser.

One man in the group, who resembles a precise mashup of Michael McDonald and Zangief from Street Fighter, flashes his fists at me after hearing of my half-Japanese heritage. MATSURI! he bellows, pointing to the kanji sharpied on his hands. The silver medal ski jumper from my father's homeland shares a name with an Estonian village. I respect Matsuri! Each syllable requires emphasis like an asthmatic's plead for her inhaler.

It is revealed to me that Esto-Sadok, the Russian mountain village where we shoot our shots, owes its name to 36 Estonian families who marched on foot for two-odd years in search of land to herd their sheep and cattle upon. Some 200 years ago, Hendrick's red-faced sweet natured father tells me six or seven times, these families laid claim to this beautiful plateau. Han holds back from imbibing, opting for tomato juice only: the chase, without the shot.

We are out and about, on our way to "sky club," which is the epicenter of letting loose up in the mountains. Han hopes that we will ply him with drinks now that we have left behind the (extremely drunk) men he hopes will sponsor him in future competitive endeavors. After the customary groping by security, I enter the fracas : a tuxedo-clad singer who resembles Moshe Kasher is singing indecipherable pidgin English over a hyperkinetic club beat. I notice for the first time just how beautiful so many of the young women of Russia are, and how equally horrid so many of the men look. Fast upon that realization, I  notice that I have had nothing but vodka in my system for four hours now. Only later do I ponder the possibility that these observations were related to my BAC.

I overpay for "iceberg" brand vodka, in the hopes of easing my karmic debt to my new Estonian friend. After we clink glasses I lose sight of him. The middle-of-the-road Olympian, a contradiction and a nice guy, disappears.

***

One fun phenomenon is the proliferation of caps for American sports teams on the heads of foreign nationals. Norwegian skiers were spotted with Chicago White Sox, Denver Broncos, and Utah Jazz hats -- at one table alone. A man in all black sports a camo Atlanta Braves hat, and I can't help but ask him where he is from. New Zealand, of course. He just likes the way it looks and I lose out on another chance to yell "Go Phillies" for no apparent reason, or no reason beyond the guttering hope of regaining the humanity I sacrificed to take this gig in the first place.

There are more. The deputy chef de mission from Togo dons a Yankees cap, and speaks English the way any educated German boy might. We exchange email addresses in the hopes of catching a ball game; he isn't aware that A-Rod has ended his appeal of a season long suspension.

"Go Phillies", I more-or-less yell in a near-empty arena passageway -- much to the confusion of wide eyed Russian volunteers -- at the conclusion of Canada versus Latvia in the Men's hockey quarterfinals. It needed to be said, or anyway I needed to say it.

***

The World Anti Doping Agency has a fun little activation adjacent to ours in which athletes and coaches alike can take a simple 10 question yes/no exam in the hopes of "winning" prizes like a fluffy hat or a WADA-branded cowbell. In order to garner the attention of the singularly focused folks dining and competing, these bells ring out with alarming frequency between the hours of 11am and 4pm daily. One can't escape this cacophony: I am enveloped and awash in the sounds of shitty Russian top-40 over cheap PA speakers, PSAs from an IOC TV and those damn bells. This is what Sochi sounds like away from the cheering.

***

Every night we are graced with the presence of some Russian pop sensation in the medal plaza. Without fail there will be, after counting to four in English, desensitizing levels of bass and a blinding light show. I spot a network camerman in a Yo La Tengo shirt and lose my shit: soon this will all end and I can openly discuss Russia's draconian policies towards its own people without wondering if I'm going to get whipped by a cossack militiaman.

The big 'get' for these games was everyone's favorite MTV car-improvement personality and Likwit Family designated driver, Mr. X to the Z himself -- Xzibit. While I am one for getting my walk on, I was unable to attend the sold out X show and had to opt for Canada vs. Finland Men's hockey instead. Some decisions haunt you; I slept great that night.

***

A last note on the snow in Sochi: from the looks of the green blades of grass that show more and more prominently with every aerial participant's landing, the white powder they crash upon is not the result of natural weather patterns. In fact, I spy workers frequently shoveling greyish snow off village rooftops in the mountain; they're emptied into wheelbarrows which are then tossed into large orange trucks bound for the ski venues. I am baptised by the idle spray of their tires. It's 12 degrees celcius today in the mountain, and only getting warmer. When everyone leaves, it will all be left to melt in peace.

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