Commentary

Impressions of Sochi so far

From the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat, Olympics have not disappointed

Updated: February 17, 2014, 10:24 AM ET
By ESPN.com staff

SOCHI, Russia -- If there's a moment that sort of symbolizes these games for me this far, it has to be this past Friday, when I watched the women's skeleton final at the Sanki Sliding Center. There, in a span of a couple of minutes, one American woman watched her Olympic dreams come true while another was left utterly heartbroken thanks to the thinnest of margins -- four-hundredths of a second.

[+] EnlargeNoelle Pikus-Pace
Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesKatie Uhlaender did find someone to hug -- teammate Noelle Pikus-Pace -- after narrowly missing the medal stand.

I grew up watching ABC's Wide World of Sports and listening to Jim McKay boast about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. And in one night, in a few short minutes, it was all right before my very eyes. Noelle Pikus-Pace, jumping into the stands to hug her family and share her emotions. And Katie Uhlaender, a few feet away, coming up less-than-a-blink-of-an-eye short, tears streaming down her face, looking for anyone to hug.

Pikus-Pace literally could not stop smiling. And Uhlaender, without any family there, kept walking around mumbling to herself, "four-hundredths."

If medals were given out based on what you had endured to get to that point, they both would have stood on the podium: Pikus-Pace after suffering a compound fracture of her leg in 2005 and a miscarriage in 2011; Uhlaender for overcoming injuries, concussions, depression and the death of her father from a heart attack in 2009. And yet this night was yet another reminder: The Olympics don't care about the most compelling story. All it cares about is who can be the biggest, strongest, fastest and best. On this night, who could beat the clock? Three did. One would be an American. And by the smallest of margins, the two others would not.

-- Wayne Drehs

The virtues of curling

Sochi is growing on me. (Well, kinda.) After two weeks in this spring-like-winter wonderland, a few impressions stand out:

  • I have no idea what Sochi looks like. I wish my family would stop asking. I am in Adler, Russia. But I hear Sochi is lovely.

  • Thanks in large part to the fact that this Olympics was built from scratch (oh, and the minor detail that there was no other space), all sea-level venues, otherwise known as the "coastal cluster," are within about a half-mile radius of each other. The unprecedented proximity has allowed me to watch and cover more Olympic events than in any other Games I have either participated in or covered. Special thanks to Mr. Putin for pumping in $51 billion for my Olympic viewing pleasure.

  • What happens to the dorms, hotels and half-finished housing built (or in my dorm's case, is still being built -- and doubling as my morning wake-up call) around town to accommodate more than 3,000 athletes and coaches, almost 15,000 media members, an estimated 37,000 security personal (I've seen more dogs than Cossacks), fans from 124 countries, and more than 25,000 volunteers? Yes, Adler ... errr, Sochi ... has a few World Cup games in 2018. And a Formula One race every year. But unless it is tearing most of this down post-Olympics, you don't need a degree in urban planning to know it is going to need a ton of big events to sustain this newly erected city.

  • If my daughter or son tells me they want to do halfpipe, or skicross, or aerials free ski, or any of these incredible winter sports with amazing athletes doing gravity-defying aerials, I am going to gush effusively about the virtues of curling.

-- Julie Foudy

Underdog alert

[+] EnlargeT.J. Oshie
Scott Rovak-USA TODAY SportsT.J. Oshie's one-man shootout against Russia was highlight. But watching Slovenia win? Priceless.

OK, for pure spectacle there is no way to beat T.J. Oshie's one-man shootout against the Russians in the Bolshoy Ice Dome with Russian President Vladimir Putin in attendance.

But at the other end of the spectrum was watching lightly regarded Slovenia in its first Olympic hockey tournament stun heavily favored Slovakia 3-1 in the preliminary round. Usually when you head down to the mixed zone, you know the players by name. But there we were clutching our Slovenian lineups and trying to match numbers with names to do postgame interviews. Most of these players are toiling in relative obscurity in lower-tier professional leagues in Europe, making very little money. But the sheer exultation of those Slovenian players at having won a game in a tournament in which they were given no shot of having any success was a moment to remember.

"This is like a gold medal for us. We didn't expect that but this is amazing for us. It's history. It's our first win in the Olympics," forward Bostjan Golicic said. How cool is that? 

-- Scott Burnside

More than fine

For all the people back home who keep asking whether I am safe or whether there are any stray dogs or strange men sleeping in my hotel room, the answer is everything is just fine. Actually, it's more than fine. Despite all the stories, blogs, tweets and postings about the housing and transportation issues in Sochi, these Olympic Games are better than most.

My room is big and comfortable, with a mini-fridge, private bath, walk-in closet and entry way. Our building is a quick stroll to a very pretty waterfront walkway on the Black Sea. There are stalls offering local handicrafts, a restaurant serving good food and a bar serving dangerously cheap booze. There is an excellent fitness center at the press center that is open 24/7. The volunteers and workers are friendly.

The transportation service is incredibly frequent and reliable. I've only once had to wait more than 10 minutes for a bus, and usually the wait is five minutes or less. Security clearings are controlled and reassuring but never as slow or aggravating as a U.S. airport.

The coastal cluster venues are all within walking distance. The mountain venues can all be reached in less than two hours.

My favorite Olympics were Lillehammer in 1994, but we stayed in cramped dorm rooms with poor heating, unpainted drywall and a shared bathroom with a squeegee for pushing the water down the shower drain (no curtains). I also missed the last bus from figure skating one night and had to hitchhike home more than 30 miles.

But all that was before social media, so writers didn't have an easy outlet to complain.

And why don't we report the good things more often? Possibly because we keep forgetting our Twitter passwords after drinking too many 89 cent glasses of wine.

-- Jim Caple

Can't-miss ticket

Unfortunately, my Olympics are always limited to the hockey bubble that is my life. But certainly even within that prism, what has hit me so far is the incredible passion Russian fans have for their beloved hockey team. Despite a so-so preliminary round, it's been electric at Bolshoy Ice Dome. Picture a soccer game in Brazil with the whistling and chanting and rhythmic cadence from the crowd. My job is to cover and watch the game, but I find myself often watching the crowd and the flag-waving, almost hypnotized by the intoxicating atmosphere. Just like in Vancouver four years ago, these Olympics will be judged as a success by how the host hockey team fares. It's the can't-miss ticket in town when Team Russia hits the ice.

-- Pierre LeBrun

#Sochiselfies

A week before I left for Sochi, Sochi began to inundate my life. Friends, colleagues and athletes who arrived at the Olympics ahead of me began clogging my Instagram and Facebook feeds with photos of themselves -- #Sochiselfies, if you will -- snowboarding in incredible terrain, eating at quality restaurants and generally enjoying the experience. This, I assumed was their version of Russian propaganda, a less-than-honest social media reality intended to make those of us back home feel silly for worrying.

[+] Enlarge#sochiselfie
Martin Rose/Getty ImagesOur reporter started receiving Sochie selfies, like this one being shot by volunteers, before her arrival at the Olympics.

But then I arrived at my hotel in Sochi's Krasnaya Polyana mountain region. In contrast to the experience of many of my colleagues, I found a completed hotel with a room that was as nice as any I've stayed in. The next morning on my way to attend a snowboard halfpipe news conference at the media center, I was struck by an incredibly beautiful Alaska-like mountain range that looked a lot like the one I'd been seeing on Instagram. I started counting the days until I would be free to ride.

The food, I can't much speak to, as I've eaten mostly in the venue media centers, which close earlier than any in my experience, serve few vegetarian options and offer free, freeze-dried coffee and lukewarm water. Most days, I bring my lunch, Larabars mostly, which I brought from home. Gorki, the town through which I walk each morning on my way to the media center, is far from complete. Each day, paper is removed from a storefront window to reveal a new retail store, coffee shop or bar. Gorki is a pop-up town, as is neighboring Rosa Khutor -- neither existed before the Olympic build. A local I met yesterday told me he hopes the government continues to finish these buildings after we all leave, because he would like to bring his family here on vacation for many years. I hope so, too.

Of the five Olympics I've covered, Sochi undoubtedly feels the least Olympic. That statement comes with the caveat that I have spent the entire two weeks in the mountains. I have not seen the Olympic flame, did not attend the opening ceremony and have not gone to a medal ceremony or hockey game or visited USA House. That all takes place a bus ride away in Adler. In the mountain region, the streets, squares and restaurants are empty, aside from a few in Rosa Khutor each night. In the 13 days I've been here, I've rarely felt like I am at the Olympics. Except during competition.

The snowboard and freeski events have been fantastic. As someone who covers action sports for a living and has for many years, it's been incredible to see the debut of six events, to witness a U.S. sweep in ski slopestyle and to watch the Olympic media fall in love with so many names and faces new to them. I'm proud and honored to be a part of it, and because of that, I've been as emotional as I have at any Olympics. Saturday, I finally had a day off and a chance to meet up with a group of friends, strap into my snowboard and take a few runs. Needless to say, I wasted little time taking a photo and posting it to Instagram.

-- Alyssa Roenigk

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