C.W. Gusewell


Sochi is not your mother's Russia

As with an estimated 158 million other people in this country – 65 percent of all American adults – my waking hours in recent days have been largely devoted to watching broadcasts of the Olympic Games from Sochi, Russia.

One aspect of the early commentary I found especially annoying was the way some of television’s talking heads seemed to take satisfaction from dwelling on minor shortcomings in Russia’s preparations for the quadrennial spectacle.

Unfinished construction continued in some areas of the Olympic Village. Hotel accommodations for guests were said to fall short of four-star luxury.

Did a doorknob come off in the hand? Did a toilet – one of hundreds – fail to flush? Is that news?

Russia’s expenditures on this international spectacle have amounted – best guess – to $50 billion. If accurate, that would make these the most costly games ever.

To have traveled Russia in the 1970s, during the period of Soviet rule under Leonid Brezhnev, is to appreciate how far that country has come and what a triumph these Olympics represent.

In those remembered days, scarcity was the common denominator of Russian life. Food, lodging, transport, medical care – everything , not even to mention the smallest luxury – was in short supply.

A visitor from the West, traveling on the Moscow subway, could sense envious inspection by fellow riders of his clothing, even of his shoes. The regimented shoe industry that year might have made only one style, one color.

A decent meal could be difficult, sometimes almost impossible, to find.

The circus and the ballet were magnificent, but those were spectacles for foreigners. Few locals could afford the tickets.

All that is the past.

The presentation in Sochi, beginning with the breathtaking opening ceremony, has been not just a celebration of youth and sport but also an announcement of Russia’s changing place on the world stage.

A great deal of the many hours of Olympic broadcasts I’ve very much enjoyed. But one category of events I have found – and always find – difficult to watch. And that is the figure skating.

The art of it is breathtaking, of course – the combination of grace and athleticism.

What troubles me are the occasional but inevitable falls. Years of devotion and unending repetition have brought those brave and beautiful youngsters to their appearance on the ice.

What follows may be triumph, with a thunder of applause and an appreciative shower of flowers onto the ice. Or, in an instant, the spinning leap, done flawlessly a thousand times in practice, becomes an ungainly sprawl on the ice.

And instead of the joy that was deserved, there are tears of pain and disappointment.

That’s what I’ve dreaded seeing until, by accident one day this week, I happened on the channel with Olympic ice dancing and while watching the performance experienced a kind of revelation.

A fall isn’t a failure after all.

It is only brilliance interrupted. There will be other rinks, other audiences, and days when a twirling triple jump is as easy as breathing – days of only flowers, with no tears.