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Importance of hockey gold inflated

Russian fans wanted to win gold and prove their renewed dominance to the rest of the world. Martin Rose/Getty Images

SOCHI, Russia -- The Olympic flame flickered high above Sochi's Olympic Park, emitting a telling odor. It smelled as if something was burning. The Russian men's hockey team had just lost to Finland in the quarterfinals, ending its tournament run before the medal round. So much for happy endings.

The $50 billion-plus that Russia spent preparing for these Games were assigned for a single outcome: a hockey gold medal. It would be symbolic of the Olympics' larger success. Dominant in Olympic play during Soviet times, Russia hasn't won gold since 1992, when it competed as the Unified Team. After that, the country experienced a similar social, economic and political downward spiral. More recently, under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has in many ways recovered. Despite this, Russia has yet to regain the position of global influence that it held in Soviet times, and this continues to rankle around here.

A hockey gold medal was supposed to be the capstone of Putin's Sochi revival party, proof that Russia was back. Now we have an opposite result. In all of its games but one, a shootout thriller against the U.S., the Russian team seemed disorganized and confused.

This has left Russian fans likewise lost and wandering. The TV cameras panned the crowd in the Bolshoy Ice Dome at the close of Russia's loss to Finland. Women and men alike were crying. Their faces were tragicomic, their cheeks painted with the Russian tricolor, tears streaming through the white, blue and red. National devastation.

The fans streamed out of the rink and on to their homes and hotels. Some needed special comfort. Alexander Pankratov was one of them. He lifted a glass of Krasny Polyansky, a spirit popular in the mountains. Pankratov works the bar at Shaybu-Shaybu, a hockey-themed canteen down the road from the coastal Olympics venues.

The walls of the bar are decked out with hockey sticks, jerseys and grainy photos of Vladislav Tretiak and other Soviet stars. Pankratov wore a red T-shirt with the words "Russian Hockey" on the front, in English. He was strongly built, yet looked deflated, along with others who had come to Shaybu-Shaybu to commiserate. "We are not a team," Pankratov said. "The Olympics are over for me."

Russia's loss had awoken raw emotion. A woman appeared behind the bar, working alongside Pankratov. She said her name was Yulia and that she was from Moscow. After some time, Yulia stepped out from behind the bar and approached me. "Can you come with me over here, please?" she asked, gesturing to one of the canteen's couches. Out of politeness, I followed.

We sat down. She looked at me solemnly. "Why do Americans hate us?" she asked. "What did we do to deserve it?" Visibly, she was anguished.

Yulia said she had watched the Russia-Finland game on TV, with a crowd of mixed nationality. When the game ended, she said, many of those watching turned to her and shrugged in empathy. Several Americans, though, had a different reaction. "They high-fived each other and said, 'Yay! Russia sucks!' Why did they do it? Why do you hate us so much? We don't hate you."

I said politics can cruelly manipulate the thoughts of regular people, and I denounced the behavior of the Americans she had described. I told her we didn't hate them, but that we didn't understand them as well as we could. Yulia's eyes welled up. I hoped she believed me.

Russians care how the rest of the world perceives them, with an intensity Americans don't share. The point of these Games was to redraw Russia's international image as a dominant, capable society, not the bumbling absurdity of a persistent, bigoted cliché. That's what Yulia was talking about.

In the wake of the hockey team's elimination, and the re-examination that it brought, I thought of a story I had heard from a local a few days before. The man's name was Vladimir; he worked for the government in security. He wanted to know, "Why do American people think that all Russians hang out with bears?" He then proceeded to tell a bear story, a true one by his reckoning.

This was the story of the new Olympic bobsled track, located in the mountains of Krasnaya Polyana, 30 miles from here. One night a few months ago, Vladimir explained, a bear lumbered down from the mountains and approached the bobsled track. It appeared on the security monitors in the guard house, but the guards on duty took no notice. The bear stepped onto the track, curious in its own way. There it took a wrong step. The bear slipped, falling right into the run. It flew down the bobsled track on its back.

"It got scared," Vladimir explained. "When bears get scared, their bowels loosen up." Vladimir painted a colorful picture, of the bear smearing the bobsled run as it shot down the track. "The security guards heard something, and they went to check it out. But when they got to the bottom of the track, the bear had run off. They never found it."

The Russian government and society had loaded the performance of the hockey team with unrealistic importance. The team's return to dominance was supposed to signal Russia's own global ascendancy. Now that the team has failed, what image of itself will Russia leave behind from the Sochi Games? A befouled apparatus and a frightened, phantom bear? I hope not. Some things are unfair.