Our travel expert, retired attorney, John Wilson is now a 9-time Olympian! Not as an athlete, per se, but definitely as an adventurer! He has been traveling to the Olympics since the 1976 Montreal Games. John has been fondly reminiscing about his Olympic past in this exclusive ICLEF 4-Part Series. Having now attended the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, John will regale us with what he learned from his Russian adventures. Click to read Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3.
Live From The Sochi Winter Olympic Games
THE OLYMPIC SERIES, Part 4
By John Wilson
If You Knew Sochi Like I Know Sochi…
Привет (Hello – Russian)
Even though I had attended eight prior Olympics, I did not intend to go to the Sochi. I learned, as you have, that Sochi does not have a Siberian climate. As we left Indy, the temperature was -6 F. in Indy and 60 F. in Sochi. Next, with very few Americans interested in going to Sochi, Olympic tickets which usually have been very hard to get, became available. Mo and I have an unbelievable set of event tickets, including the men’s USA v. Russia hockey game in pool play.
It wasn’t easy. The visa process gives interesting insight into the local political culture via some of the questions on the application. In the case of Russia, in addition to questions about what clubs and organizations I belonged to, they wanted to know my last three employers, when and why I left. Because I worked at my last employer for thirty-two years, I had to do a little memory dredging to come up with a response.
Flights were interesting. Using standard search engines like Orbitz, Yapta and Skyscanner, tickets from Indy to Sochi were running around $2500 which was above my budget. By breaking the flight search to Indy–Moscow, $925, and Moscow–Sochi $250, I made the booking.
In prior Olympic blogs, I mentioned that many times I have waited to get housing until close to the Olympics. That is when reasonable rates and terms seem to reappear as property owners realize that not as many tourist are coming as they thought and it becomes a buyers market. I have seen online where Russian tourist regularly show up in Sochi without a room and find one when they arrive. There are limits to my adventurous spirit, especially in Russia. I also thought that the housing would be dismal soviet era apartments. Then, also online, I found that a credible organization had arranged to have a credible cruise liner docked in Sochi for the Olympics. My favorite and only daughter, Mo, and I are staying on the Norwegian Cruise Liner, Jade, with two thousand of our best new international friends. It is docked in Sochi Seaport for the Olympics. I also could envision bad Soviet food in a few restaurants with sullen/surly wait staffs. In addition to the ship’s restaurants which are excellent and surprisingly inexpensive, Sochi has been a resort for generations and is noted for a wide variety of family restaurants serving excellent regional and international fare. Who knew?
We do not know what the media is saying about security, but from our on the ground spectators view, it has been outstanding. Before arriving, I was required to get an Olympic photo I.D. to be able to use my Olympic Tickets. I had to have that pass validated in Sochi. I need a boarding pass to be able to get on the Norwegian Jade. I also need another pass to get into the seaport. The boarding passes had not been sent until about ten days before the Olympics began. (But all of us on the good ship Jade were in the same boat.) And got them upon arrival.
All train and bus transportation is free during the Olympics. To get on a train, you go through a typical airport scanner, always get a pat down, and they have a kind of heat sensitive scanner on you while this happens. They have sufficient staff that we have never had to wait more than one or two minutes to get through. The train ride from Sochi to Olympic Park takes forty minutes on new trains. In addition to fencing and security cameras, a soldier stands guard every few hundred yards along the train line, even for the train from Sochi to the alpine events. The Cossacks have made a come back for the first time since Czar Nicholas and are helping with security. They are very serious fellows, but we got a little smile out of this one.
We stopped for one night in Moscow on our way to Sochi. We stayed at the Katerina City hotel which is owned by Swedes. We met another guest on his way to the Olympics who is from Trinidad, but lives in London. Upon recommendation from the hotel staff, we all went to a German restaurant where we drank Czech beer with the Russians. The international vacation was officially started.
The weather has been great. The train from Sochi to the venues follow the Black Sea shore line. We saw people swimming yesterday.
The vast majority of the Olympic visitors are Russians, but there are guests from all over the world, particularly the countries with winter sport backgrounds. The family of the Canadian pairs skaters, Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are on the boat. I didn’t know who they were when I sat down to talk to them and asked how their day had been. They said, “pretty good, our son won a bronze medal today”. We have met parents of an Irish Grand Slalom skier and Canadian ski jumper. I had a late night with Kim and Jacob from the Danish IOC who were entertaining sponsors from Sweden. We met Jeff and Tom on the way to aerials. They were from the U.S. but were working in Abu Dhabi. Jeff is the nephew of Mary Marsh who is retired PNC Trust Counsel in Indy. They really wanted to buy our two extra tickets to USA v Russia hockey, but I had promised them to Conner, from Dublin and his friend, Liann, who is a solicitor in London.
Olympic Park is huge. The walk from the entrance to the circle of event venues and the Olympic Torch is over a mile. The are some country exhibits, including USA house which would not let us in because we were not on the Olympic Committee. How rude! There are also sponsor exhibits, a couple of which were pretty interesting. One three dimensional photo exhibit exceeds my ability to explain it, so if you see me, ask to see the video. The ice climbing wall was very cool and open to all comers.
Our first event was speed skating, the Men’s 500 meters. Each participant skates twice and the skater with the best aggregate time win’s. The Netherlanders prevailed, but the Russians got a medal to the great joy of our hosts. After our event we took the half hour train ride back to Sochi and went to the ship. The events run late so the ship has two restaurants they don’t even open until 10:30 and serve until 2:30 A.M.. The next day we had no events. We did some walking in Sochi. They have a promenade along the water with the same type of tourist trap shops that we have along our beaches in the U.S. We didn’t buy anything. Those cool red and white sports jacket only cost 27,500 rubles at 35 rubles to the dollar. Next was short track speed skating. The Olympic equivalent of roller derby.
After watching the Russians beat Slovenia in hockey, we went to the Today Show set where they were filming live at 6:00 P.M. Sochi time and 9:00 A.M. New York time. Did you see me? I was right behind Al.
The next day we had tickets to Women’s Aerials at the Rosa Khatour Extreme Park. The village at Krasnay Polyana looks much like a new American ski resort like Vail with upscale accommodations, stores and restaurants. The only souvenir Mo wanted from Russia was a “Big Russian Hat”. We bought it here.
The only problem was instead of charging 9000 rubles to my Visa card (about $270), they charged 90,000. And Visa would not let them back out a charge of that much. We were blissfully unaware of the problem as more employees came to discuss it and the solution among themselves. I did notice that one lady was counting out a lot of rubles. When it came time to give us the bad news, their English was not sufficient to explain the problem and proposed solution. A Russian whose English was better, stepped in to interpret. It took quite awhile to resolve the problem and our new Russian interpreter stayed with us the whole time. He made us promise to e-mail him that all was okay when we got back to the States. The solution was that now I was the proud holder of 81,000 rubles in cash. As I was going to get hurt on the currency exchange, we then found a Russian Visa employee, Vladimir, who also went out of his way to help us, including having a colleague bring an international cell phone up the mountain so we could call JPMorgan Visa in Columbus, Ohio.
We rode the tram up to the venue with a news team from New Zealand. The Kiwi’s only had fifteen athletes and had not won a medal. We asked how their work was coming along, and they said it was hard coming up with eight ways to say, “It was another tough day for New Zealand”. We were in the standing section for the Aerials. The Russian in front of Mo, wanted to talk to us, but his English was not good and our Russian was still basically non-existent. Eventually, we understood he was from Siberia. He gave Mo a writing pen and we gave his little boy a Kennedy half-dollar. Detente again. The U.S. had the best performer in the event but did not medal as she fell in the finals.
Russia v. USA hockey was the biggest event yet and we had tickets. What a great game! The Russian fans were out in force, but the U.S. a surprising number of fans. If you didn’t see it, the game was tied at the end of regulation, tied at the end of a five minute overtime period with the U.S. finally prevailing in a shoot out that went to eight shots. The Russians were stunned.
The Russians have a different culture than we do with respect to lines and personal space. Mo and I were standing in a short line to get a victory beer after the U.S. win over Russia in hockey. A Russian guy in a black leather jacket and two day beard growth (something of a Russian fashion statement) walks right past us and all the others in line, including Russians, slams money on the counter and growls something in Russian to the server (I’m pretty sure he said, “Give me beer now, or die”). The server stops taking care of us, gets the guy his beer and the guy walks off. The practice of cutting lines and shoving through crowds was so prevalent that we even met some Canadians who were upset by it.
Overall, we feel the Russians did a great job with the spectators, signage was very clear with English sub-titles. All verbal announcements on the trains and in the Olympic Park were in Russian and English. Every where we went if a volunteer did not speak English, the volunteer would have another nearby who did.
The Games are over for us now. It was a great adventure. We now spend a couple of days in Moscow and then will come back to the U.S.
This is one of an ongoing series of travel discussions by John Wilson, retired lawyer and trust banker. John was motivated to start this series when he realized that his travel bio was more extensive and interesting than his legal credentials for doing ICLEF talks. He has traveled to forty-five states, over sixty countries and all continents except Antarctica.
If you have travel questions or tips of your own that you would like to suggest please contact ICLEF’s travel expert, John Wilson, by Clicking Here.
Photographs © 2014, John Wilson. Photographs may not be used without permission.
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