Now that the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia have come to a close, I felt compelled to write one last post to bid farewell to what was an amazing and rewarding experience.

Boarding our Sochi bound flight in Istanbul, we honestly didn’t know what to expect.  We’d seen in the media the many reports of poorly finished accommodations, numerous security threats, and Orwellian security measures.  In the end we trusted that our hosts would have the Games ready for the world and that the media was simply doing what the media does, focusing a little too much on some of the glitches in the machine rather than on the machine itself.

Upon arriving in Sochi we found that the weather was beautiful and the sun was warm.  On our first day walking to the the Coastal Cluster from our cruise ships we found ourselves dressed head to toe in Hudson’s Bay Team Canada winter gear, whilst the thermometer read 16C and the sun beamed down on us.  That walk was about 45 minutes and along the way you’d encounter oddities that gave hints towards some of the last minute efforts of the Russians to get everything ready for the games.  Sometimes it would be a random large hole in the sidewalk, sometimes it would be workers laying sod, sometimes it would be the stories of other travellers and their own experiences.

What I liken it the criticisms of the country’s preparedness for the Games would be a house party.  The tweets, articles, and complaints were from a situation a little like showing up to a house party right at the invite time.  If the Facebook invite says 7:00pm and you show up and 7:00pm, you’ll find no other guests, and the host still putting up decorations.  Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the hosts had seven years to put the decorations for the party up, but considering the scope of the event, some latitude could be granted.

In that vein, I’d point people right back to Vancouver 2010.  Remember that awkward moment when the one of the arms of the Olympic torch in Vancouver didn’t properly move into place?  It was a moment that the fifth ring at the Sochi Opening Ceremonies failing to open was coyly reminiscent of.  And I’m still not even sure what I can liken Wayne Gretzky riding through downtown Vancouver in the rain with Olympic torch in hand to.

With my memories of how contrarian the media was towards Vancouver during it’s opening week in mind, over the first few days in Sochi I figured we could afford them a little slack.  Like Vancouver, it seemed that the world was cheering against Sochi.

I’ll stop there briefly.  There are many things happening in the Russian political sphere that are patently wrong.  For many, the choice of location was a signal to imperalistic posturing, and many referred to these Games as Putin’s Games.  Their recent passing of anti-gay laws, their treatment of political dissidents in their own country and neighbouring countries, and the unfortunate treatment of some residents of Sochi are components of foreign and domestic policies that are inexcusable.  But if there is one thing that I was reminded of in Sochi, it was how divergent the culture of a people can be from the nature of it’s leaders.

It was the people of Russia that won me over.  I was told by one of the Canadian event organizers who had been in Russia for two years with the IOC helping with the Games that prior to this the Russians really had no word for “volunteer”.  Yet as the Games unfolded we found ourselves constantly being happily greeted by a small army of friendly, waving, young, Russian volunteers.  The security personnel in their purple snowsuits were always professional, at times even going out of their way to be cordial, and were never intimidating.  And most remarkably, the Russian spectators were for the most part energetic, welcoming, and warm towards us Canadians.

Trading things like pins, toques, mitts, hats, etc, is a pretty common practice at the Olympics.  You see things like a pair of mitts for a volunteer hat, or a Canada Olympic pin for a Russian Team pin or an Omega Sponsor pin.  One day when we were eating out on a patio in the mountains when a Russian gentleman in his 40’s came up to us desperate to trade his scarf for one of our Team Canada toques.  After a brief exchange one of our party made the trade and he brought a Canada toque over to his delighted daughter who beamed with a smile that lit up across her face from ear to ear.

Another instance that speaks to some of the commonalities that we shared with our hosts was after the Canada-Austria hockey game.  We were hanging out outside the player’s lounge and while waiting to leave I was chatting with a purple snowsuit security guard.  We got to chatting about hockey (via his translator app that each of us would speak into, and it would then say what we said in the other language), and he asked me what city I was from.  I said Calgary, and after a few moments with a thick Russian accent he replied, “Ah, Calgary Flames”, and after another pause, he said “Jarome Iginla”.  I laughed happily and we chatted a bit more and he told me he really wanted to see a Canada-Russia final in men’s hockey (he’s actually at the very end of the movie I’ve posted at the bottom of this little essay).

With so many little exchanges like this, I can’t help but think that in spite of their political leadership, the Russian people are a distinct, and warm culture with more similarities with us than we sometimes appreciate.  I can’t count the number of Russians who came up to us and asked for pictures, or asked us what we thought of their country and the games, or wanted a token piece of memorabilia from Canada such as our trademark mittens.  The Russian youth, or those who I casually observe to have been born after the fall of the Soviet Union, are a lot more like friendly Canadians in their generosity than I would have thought.

A last example of their warmth was one couple, probably the same age and Shirley and I, who wanted a picture with us and were keen to let us know that they were happy that we had come all the way from Canada to visit their home town of Sochi.  We traded pins with them (a Moscow 1980 pin for a Canada Olympic pin) and after a couple moments decided we would give them the luge tickets which we wouldn’t be able to use.  I really regret not taking a photo with them because they were incredibly gracious and the guy’s girlfriend let out a barely audible squeal of excitement when he told her that they had just been gifted tickets to another event.

I get that maybe not all Russians are like that.  There’s a definite sample bias here because we were interfacing with the ones who wanted to be at the Olympics, and who wanted that international exchange, and who wanted to welcome the world to their country.  But I do leave the Olympics with a little bit of hope.  Hope that maybe a few of those Russians will go home thinking a little better of us, and maybe a few of us will go home thinking a little better of Russia.  In spite of all the criticisms of commercialism around the Olympics, and insinuations of back-door deals within the IOC, and sky high spending and security costs, I believe that the Olympics remain at its core a good thing.

In principle, every two years the Olympics are an opportunity for the world to come together and set aside their differences for an international exchange of culture and goodwill, centred around competition, fair play, and celebration of our most talented and strongest athletes.  Through sporting venues such as the Olympics, and World Cups, we can discover that culturally some of us may not be as different as we think.  For lack of a more fitting example, it’s a little like Rocky V after Rocky Balboa fights Drago, “During this fight, I’ve seen a lot of changing, in the way you feel about me, and in the way I feel about you. In here, there were two guys killing each other, but I guess that’s better than twenty million. I guess what I’m trying to say, is that if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!”.

For all the criticism and imperfection around the Olympics, I would simply respond with some of its stories.  Stories like that of Petra Majdic in Vancouver in 2010 who won bronze in the cross country sprint after courageously soldiering on after a fall on course which broke 4 of her ribs.  Or Tahmina Kohistani in London in 2012, who against the wishes of an oppressive society raced the 100m sprint to inspire the next generation of women in Afghanistan and around the world.  Or my friend Gilmore Junio in Sochi 2014, an athlete of Filipino descent who had the strength to be Canada’s fastest man in the 500m, and the fortitude to step aside in the 1000m and open the door for his teammate Denny Morrison to race and win silver.  And if you don’t know each of these incredible stories, please take a moment to Google them.  In Sochi, one of my personal favourite moments was when my heart glowed as I took a picture with a little Russian girl cheering for Canada at a hockey game who had a Russian flag on one cheek, and the maple leaf on another, and who told me that she loved Canada.

I’m of the personal belief that sport can bring the world together in a way that few other platforms can.  My experience in Sochi stands testament to that.  Because of that, I’d urge anyone who has the Olympics, or the World Cup, or any such event on their bucket list, to take a step out there and experience first hand what I’ve been fortunate enough to experience this past month.

I collected a lot of great memories in Sochi.  So for now, I’ll leave you once again with this short video that captured some of my favourite moments from the Games.