SOCHI, Russia -- There seems to be an unwritten rule among coaches and athletes here that you're not supposed to say anything bad about the Olympics, lest you be criticized for being ungrateful, culturally insensitive, or making some kind of excuse for a poor performance.
I've generally tried to operate by the same principles since arriving in Sochi. I'm on a trip that cost thousands of dollars (not mine), to an exotic land, where my only job is to watch sports and write about them. It would be myopic and self-centered to focus on any minor inconveniences I'm suffering, like a problem with my hotel, or the moderately complicated logistics of traveling between my hotel and the competition venues.
Well, two weeks into the games, my moratorium is coming to an end, and I'm about to do something sacrilegious: I'm going to complain about the Olympics. Because if I don't do it, who else will? And while my complaints may be self-serving and ungrateful, I do think that a little bit of whining can offer some insights into what it's actually like to be here.
On the gondola up to the biathlon venue this morning, I took it upon myself to fill two notebook pages with things that I consider to be an Olympic-sized pain in the you-know-what. So, without further ado, here's the list:
• Laundry. If I were writing this post for a general audience, and not just my family and friends, I'd lie and say that I was wearing a clean shirt and underwear today, and that there was a good chance that I'd be able to do laundry before the end of the Olympics. Wait, this post is just for my family and friends, right?
• Food. Contrary to popular belief, journalism is not exactly a cushy industry, and hence I did not arrive in Sochi with a four-figure expense account for meals and drinks. On the plus side, my hotel offers an awesome free breakfast, with pancakes, eggs, fresh fruit, and coffee every morning, plus the occasional bizarre addition like baked beans, and crepes stuffed with cottage cheese. (At least they translated it as "cottage cheese"; I decidedly have not bothered to check.) This means that every morning I eat a breakfast that's large enough to sustain me through an Olympic competition--except that I'm not actually participating in any Olympic competitions here and probably shouldn't be eating that large of a breakfast.
On the minus side, the food at the competition venues is extremely expensive, meaning that lunch every day is peanut butter and jelly on bread that I've spirited out of the hotel in a napkin. It also means that most days, dinner is peanut butter and jelly on bread that I've spirited out of the hotel in a napkin. Except when we forget to eat dinner altogether.
To be fully transparent, there was a positive development yesterday, when we discovered that the media center sells bowls of borscht for 150 rubles, or about $4. Things may be improving.
• Working. You'd think that the best place to watch an Olympic competition is at the Olympics. In fact, this is not true in the slightest, at least for the events I'm reporting on. At the cross-country and biathlon venues, the areas where members of the media are supposed to interview athletes are tucked away behind the stands, where many reporters stand and watch the races on TV. Again, let me repeat that: reporters whose employers have paid thousands of dollars for them to travel to the Olympics and report on them watch the events here on a TV.
I'm in a slightly different situation as a credentialed photographer, which gives me access to the side of the trail. Again, you'd think that this would be really cool. And it is. But it's not actually very good for reporting on a race. First of all, I generally watch skiers and biathletes go by through the viewfinder of my camera, which offers a fairly limited perspective on the race. And second, I'm standing at a single point on the trail, which means that I get to watch about 2 percent of the racing in person, and have to reconstruct the rest of it through split times and interviews afterwards.
Then, my colleagues and I have to contend with the other English-speaking reporters, who all descend on the same athletes we want to talk to as they are funneled through a gauntlet of plastic fencing that's called the mixed zone. Each of the reporters has a different agenda--one might want to talk to an athlete about their own race; another might want to ask them about the weather, or about another competitor, or regrettably, about what they had for breakfast, what their favorite color is, or whether the lunar eclipse that happened 73 weeks ago might have had an impact on their performance. (These are just a few examples.)
Finally, consider how challenging and uncomfortable it can be to get the athletes to say something that fits into your story--especially if they've been struggling, as has been the case for many of the athletes I've been talking to. Essentially, my questions have been boiling down to: "So, you just had the worst day of your life out there. Tell me about it, in excruciating detail!"
• Illness. About a week ago, I got sick, which turns out to probably be a semi-natural consequence of traveling 8,000 miles across the globe, then sleeping about six hours a night.
Being sick in Russia actually turned into a pretty amusing caper, except for the part where I felt totally miserable. The first part was when the hotel desk clerk gave me something that she said was cough drops, but which was wrapped in dubious-looking gold foil covered only with Cyrillic characters. I took it anyways--it didn't seem to make much of a difference either way. Hopefully I don't test positive for a banned substance when I race in the Tour of Anchorage early next month.
The second part was when I went to the conveniently located medical desk at the biathlon media center, which is ostensibly for athletes but where the staff was kind enough to offer me assistance. All I wanted was aspirin for a headache; what I got was aspirin, a blood-pressure check, some weird test that involved sticking my finger into a device that looked like a stapler and recorded my heartbeat, and a proclamation that I was suffering from the altitude, and should take some aspirin.
Finally: Just imagine what it's like trying to hydrate in a place where you can't drink the tap water. (Honestly, it's harder than you'd think, given that I take at least four gondola rides every day and can't just haul a gigantic jug of water around with me.)
OK, well, anyway: Sochi really is a fantastic place, and I'm generally having a good time. I could probably put together a list this long of my problems in Anchorage, as could just about any other Alaska resident. Most everything is great here, especially the borscht--and I look forward to eating more.