Unlike those sweltering hot Winter Olympic afternoons last week, Monday dawned cloudy and cool. So I decided to take a stroll in Olympic Park.
There were many wonderful things to see in the huge plazas and lawns that surround the Olympic flame and venues.
There were stages with ethnic music. There were food kiosks with hot dogs and pizza and baked potatoes. There were Russian parents holding the hands of excited children. There were corporate pavilions with high-tech displays and dramatic sports exhibits – and free hats!
But there was one thing, one traditional Olympic element, noticeably missing.
Hey, any Americans around here?
On the park’s busiest pathway, I asked that question to a young Russian woman who was sitting in one of those high lifeguard-type chairs with a bullhorn, helping people with directions.
“Yes, I saw Americans here,” she said. “I saw them here on Saturday when they played Russia in hockey. Not today. I did see Canadians.”
But I was not looking for Canadians, as much as I appreciate their hockey, beer and crack-smoking mayors.
I was looking for Americans. And there are more stray dogs roaming the Olympic Park than stray Americans. They do pop up here and there at venues for events, but usually that amounts to just a few dozen friends and relatives of competitors, cheering and waving flags.
That’s a very different scene. Even at overseas Olympics, the American presence is always more congenially invasive. We travel well. At every games, fans wearing stars-and-stripes outfits are a noticeable presence on the streets, in restaurants and at hotels. And in Olympic Parks.
Not here at Sochi 2014. I have covered seven Olympics outside North America, and I have never attended one that feels so USA-less.
It’s not difficult to pinpoint why. Many American fans surely were scared off by the pre-games terror threats from religious extremists in nearby Chechnya. Others were dissuaded by the (true) reports that not all accommodations were finished. There are anecdotal reports of stateside ticket brokers and travel agents taking a bath on unsold product or cancellations.
But folks from other countries are here. Latvians. Finns. Austrians. Swiss. Dutch. You can hear their languages spoken on the sidewalk and on buses–or in the line at the baked potato stands. Let’s listen to them converse in their diverse ways as we stroll over the pedestrian bridge to the …
Hey! Wait! Was that person talking in English? Could that be an actual American?
“Yes, I am,” said Frank Navarro, who seemed taken aback.
Can’t blame him. I was shocked, too. It was Yankee Doodle Deficit Syndrome.
Navarro is here with his wife, Allison. They have homes in Charlotte and in Colorado. They’re big hockey and ski fans. This Olympic trip was a 50th birthday present for Frank.
“We were originally coming with another couple,” said Allison. “But about a month ago, she decided to stay home. Her husband’s still here. She’s not.”
Scared away by security issues?
“I think so, a little bit,” Allison said. “She’d been to Vancouver and didn’t think we’d be able to move as freely around as we did there.”
But so far, according to Frank, they’ve been having a good time and haven’t felt intimidated. Their hotel is not plush but acceptable. The security is tight and does hinder movement. The Navarros are dealing with it fine.
“I think the media overplayed some of the bad stuff,” he said. “The most enlightening thing to me has been interacting with the Russian people. They couldn’t be happier to have us here. What you find out is, they’re much more like us than some people would lead you to believe. It’s nice we don’t have guns with bullets pointed at each others’ heads any longer.”
Frank especially felt that vibe Saturday. He attended the USA-Russia men’s hockey game. There was good-natured banter between USA fans and Russian fans, nothing profane or stupid, even after the USA victory.
“It could have been an NHL crowd,” said Frank. “I was really impressed with the atmosphere.”
Like me, however, the Navarros feel a bit lonely.
“I would estimate,” Frank said, “that in a public place here, there’s maybe a 1 percent or 2 percent chance you run into other Americans.”
And right about then, our percentage was up. The Navarros had to make a women’s hockey game. They walked onward, toward the flame.
As they did, I felt mixed emotions. I blame no American for staying home from these games. Those terrorism threats were and are real. We’ve made it through 11 days with no incidents. But six days still remain. Also, I would have been miffed to pay for a hotel room with no door handles or working light bulbs.
At the same time, having more Americans in Sochi to mix with Russian people–getting to know each other as human beings–would have made these games even better. It stinks that events conspired against that possibility. So those of us Americans here will just have to send postcards home.
Having a great baked potato. Wish you were here.