All that we're leaving behind ...
SOCHI, Russia -- The dogs of Sochi, mute and soulful, crystallized my uneasiness about these Olympic Games.
I encountered them every day that I walked the path paralleling the Black Sea behind our media housing complex. Some I got to know: adorable, velvet-faced puppies that toddled toward me and boisterous grown dogs traveling in packs of two or three, mutts with glossy coats and bright eyes and others that looked wounded in one way or another. One little blond dog with a fox's narrowed nose and a curlicue tail came when I beckoned, jumped up and put his paws on my thigh, close enough for me to see a torn ear and semi-fresh gashes on its head and leg.
You could fork out two grand and airlift a Sochi dog home with you. I thought about it, considered all the dogs and cats still being euthanized back home and decided I would make a donation to the shelter near my home outside Philadelphia instead. Then I would take another walk, see another 14 dogs and think, "What is going to happen to them?"
The Sochi Games made me think too much, in ways that were exhausting and frequently led nowhere.
I stared at the ski jumping hill on the crisp night when women were to compete in that Olympic event for the first time. I thought of the $265 million it cost to build, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly excoriating then firing the man responsible for the project and that same man turning up two months later in a German hospital claiming to have been poisoned. Progress, excellence and waste were all embedded in the ice lining the ceramic inrun tracks.
Waste was on my mind a lot. It was funny enough when photos of double toilets went viral, and we got our pants in a bunch at being told not to flush paper. It wasn't so amusing to walk back from the Olympic Park late at night in a misting rain with the smell of raw sewage so strong it lingered, rancid, on my tongue. It made me wonder, as I always do, what the site will look and smell like in 10 years and the toll taken on the ecosystem in the mountains.
There's a bifurcation to every Olympics. I saw it uncomfortably firsthand in Torino in 2006 when I helped supervise press operations for the Italian organizers at the women's alpine ski venue and witnessed the shifts of migrant workers imported to finish construction in the mud and snow. They squatted outside in rain gear eating their box lunches because they weren't allowed to enter our cafeteria. Everything was completed in time for competition, and the images from the groomed, pristine hill didn't include what we saw on the backside.
These Winter Games had even more of a split-screen quality. How many countries would have sent teams to Sochi if Russia's anti-gay "propaganda" legislation had instead singled out members of a race or religion? Constrained in expression by the very Olympic charter that purports to bar discrimination, only a few athletes spoke out on site. Most left the talking to others, notably the three openly gay former athletes on the official U.S. delegation.
Truthfully, even in the thick of the what-if scenarios leading up to Sochi, I thought anyone who was gay and wearing a credential would probably be OK. Arresting or deporting an athlete or someone on the staff of a national Olympic committee wouldn't have fit in with Putin's political charm offensive within the Ring of Steel, which included a visit to USA House, the social hub for American sponsors, athletes and families.
I worry about the LGBT community we are leaving behind and the arrests and oppression that may go unreported now without the leverage of a worldwide press corps trawling for stories. It's not so easy to fill out paperwork and take people with us, and it's likely many of them would rather stand and fight for their own humanity here anyway.
No matter how experienced a writer you are, you get to the sprawling flea market of the Games and the choice is blinding. Ideas hail down on you so thick and hard they sting. It's easy to feel you are in the wrong place every day. Go to alpine skiing and a great story breaks out at biathlon. Invest the time to take three buses up the mountain only to find out there was better drama at sea level. Count on a gold medal somewhere and miss a great upset elsewhere.
This time, the choices felt different. I covered sports here, not protests or politics, and sports didn't offer many opportunities to pull in the world beyond the bubble, and it made me feel constantly off-kilter, as if I weren't making full use of my access and privilege.
There were very fine journalists covering the violent response to and detention of Pussy Riot 15 miles away in Sochi and the days of carnage 900 miles away in Kiev, Ukraine, and I am not saying I would or should have traded places with them. But the turmoil and tragedy loomed very close in my sideview mirror, almost as if they were taking place in an Olympic venue I had decided not to visit. I felt paralyzed at times by those images as I sat typing about athletic achievement. My professional defenses were depleted by ambivalence about what this event really is and what it will become in the future.
What constitutes a successful Olympics, not by medal table standards, but for the world? The buses ran; the security was efficient. There were some competitive courses that were safer than others, some injuries, no fatalities. Nothing blew up except fireworks.
I saw great performances. I listened to American athletes I've followed for a long time, Bode Miller and Hannah Kearney and Emily Cook and Meryl Davis and Charlie White, speak with great feeling and acquired wisdom about sport and success and failure, and I know those thoughts resonate in other fields of endeavor.
I am a huge puppy lover, a softie who stopped for every single one that crossed my path. I'm happy for the people who adopted the dogs of Sochi. Those were real gestures that exerted control over something controllable. But here's the thing I can't stop thinking about: It was easier to focus on the dogs than the people or the fresh gashes in the earth we'll leave behind.