The strange beauty of Sochi
Like Disneyland for the Winter Olympics
At first blush, it’s Disneyland for the Olympics.
Sochi by the sea, or the Coastal Cluster of venues as they refer to it, is one giant-sized, high-performance park with the finest indoor sports facilities one could imagine. There are myriad ice rinks for curling, hockey, speed skating and figure skating that could take the Winter Games to a new level.
But there is an unreal, almost artificial quality about the place.
There are roller coasters and ferris wheels which make the whole setting reminiscent of an amusement park, or the midway at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.
There’s even a majestic palace which looks remarkably like Snow White's castle. Once it’s lit up in the evening it becomes a beacon in the centre of this wonderland, but upon further examination you find there’s nothing inside.
It’s a façade, and yet it makes a statement.
If nothing else, first impressions of this Olympic host city amount to amazement.
In the mountains, which are less than an hour away, there are cool temperatures and wondrous vistas. The Nordic and alpine venues are picturesque — even breathtaking — and they are already humming with activity. The concerns that there will be a lack of snow are, so far, misguided, because the tracks and ski runs are flush with the white stuff.
It is literally like a winter wonderland.
Seeing is believing
The other day at noon, I found myself recording on-camera segments for the opening of our Olympic coverage on Thursday. Behind me, the magnificent cross-country athletes powered their way through the forested trails racing by trees laden with fresh snow.
By 1:30 pm, I had donned my shorts and was running on the coast of the Black Sea as the breakers rushed to the shore. I chugged along the vast seawall lined by palm trees adjacent to the incredible egg-shaped dome of Fisht Stadium, where the opening ceremony will gather 3,000 Olympians and their followers in just a couple of days.
I was stopped by two guys who turned out to be an NBC production team from Alaska. They’re here to follow seven members of Team USA who hail from the country’s northernmost state. In particular, cross-country skiing’s Kikkan Randall could win a couple of gold medals, and therefore ascend to superstar status back in Anchorage.
The guy manning the camera was wearing Bermuda shorts and a tank top, part of an offbeat report about the “Russian Riviera” which lies on the threshold of the Olympic plaza.
“How do you feel about an Olympics where there’s no snow?” he asked. “It just seems kinda weird.”
At that point I pulled out my iPad, on which I’d been taking a multitude of pictures, and showed him the mountains where I’d been a short time ago.
His eyes widened and he shook his head in amazement.
“We gotta get up there soon,” he told his buddy. “We have to see it with our own eyes to believe it.”
As I continued on my run past the Bolshoy Ice Dome and the Shayba Arena, I couldn’t help ruminating about the unreal quality of all that I’ve experienced here so far. And I got to thinking that the guys from Alaska, like so many others, are understandably skeptical.
Based on what’s happened in the past, there is little explanation for Sochi.
True, 52 billion dollars and who knows what other sorcery have made all this magic happen in the south of Russia, where the climate is akin to the south of France. Then again, it is happening, we are here, and the action is about to begin.
There is a storybook fantasy somewhere out there for the writing.
But let’s hope when the athletes take the stage they find that there’s something behind the façade of Sochi, that these fields of play for these Olympic Winter Games are much more than just strangely beautiful, and rather places to shine which have a soul inside.