Beyond Slush, Strays and Stalin: An Alternative Sochi Story

I only have one rule for the woman whom I will eventually marry. Before I propose, we have to go on a bad trip together. If the planned trip turns out too well, we will need to try again. The trip needs to go poorly. I’m a hopeless romantic; I know.

Complaints are the most insightful form of dialogue. You can learn an incredible amount about people’s priorities by the subject of their complaints. A complaint, if only for a split second, reveals True Thoughts, the background information that is usually covered by more polite and stale conversation. The quickest way to guarantee that the mask of externally projected idealism gets removed is to get in a situation that is problematic. It is in these moments that the seeds for bigger problems are revealed.

torchMy expectations for the Olympics in Russia were not high. After registering with the United States State Department, I had been receiving warnings of terrorist attacks and lack of basic necessities in Sochi almost daily. My friends warned me to avoid mass transit, standing in crowds, using my cell phone, and most importantly, wearing anything that identified myself as an American. The web reported rampant dog killing, homophobia, and accounts of parents not wanting to risk their own safety to support their Olympian children.

The complaints were endlessly echoed and transformed. According to the American media, the Olympics in Russia were no place for an American, especially one who wanted to support American athletes. Russia was too corrupt, clumsy, harsh and dangerous for the developed people of the West.

This left me with a major problem. The purpose of my life is to complete my Life List before my deadline of May 25th 2017. One of my Life List items – to attend an Opening Ceremony at the winter Olympics – would only occur one more time before my deadline. That meant, with a 100% absolutism that I would be attending the Olympics in Russia.

ski-jumping

When I started hearing negative reports about the Olympics, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to write my own story. I wanted to experience the events myself and record my own version of what unfolded. Despite the warnings of countless friends, I boarded a plane for Russia.

The journey was long. Due to meetings I had scheduled along the way, it took seven legs of flights and about a week to make it the 12 time zones from Seattle to Sochi. When I finally stepped off the last airplane, I was literally on the other side of the globe from where I had started.

When I was in high school, I once crashed a party at a random rich guy’s house. I had no idea whom the party thrower was, but was intrigued by the party inside, and more to the point, the girls walking into his front door. I parked my car a few blocks away, stepped into my most confident stride, and walked right into the guy’s house. My first action was simple but calculated. I didn’t drink at the time, but took the opportunity to act as a bartender for other partiers. From that moment on, I was accepted into the party without issue.
Partying at a rich stranger’s house is an incredible experience. It is the proverbial free lunch but with the added benefits of booze, mystery and fun new people to meet.

Attending the Olympics was a lot like attending that rich guy’s house party. There was one key difference that was paramount. Whereas the house party had a budget of perhaps a few thousand dollars, the Russian budget for the Olympics was 52 billion dollars.

Party on!

Waiting for me on the other side of the globe was a rather amazing Airbnb host. She was a local of Sochi who spoke perfect english, and was excited to have me as her first guest. The woman was volunteering at the Olympics in her free time to help support her city and country. With pride, she talked to me about how the city had transformed from a once booming beach town (during the height of the USSR), to a region of disrepair (after The Fall), and then in the last seven years back into a world class vacation spot. She was a film photographer and showed me grainy photos of the massive construction projects in town. There were seven new stadiums, dozens of new luxury hotels, an extensive electric rail system, a brand new freeway system, six new major tunnels, Vegas sized entertainment venues, and a completely refurbished downtown area. This was rich dude taken to a whole new level! It was by far the biggest construction project I had ever seen. It was as if Whistler, Boulder and Stockholm had been recreated from scratch for one globally watched party.

At the apartment, I sat on a comfortable bed reading tweets and Facebook updates about how all of the lodging in Sochi lacked door knobs, clean water, heating, and light bulbs. I closed my properly functioning door, switched on my properly functioning lights, took a properly functioning shower and turned down the properly functioning heating system.

The only issue I saw, were the media, who are always the loudest people in town by virtue of their massive distribution channels, having problems with their hotels. Throughout my time in Sochi, I talked to countless other Olympic spectators, who like me, said they had had no problems with lodging. None of the people I talked to had anything to complain about.

Let’s Get This Party Started!

IMG_3217My primary reason for attending the Olympics was to experience the Opening Ceremony. It was a Life List item, and before my deadline I only had one opportunity to make it happen. As such, I arrived in Russia early, paid steeply to guarantee myself Opening Ceremony tickets (which I reserved a year in advance), took extreme measures to protect those tickets after receiving them (I’ll explain my travel security measures after I finish my Life List quest) and I arrived at the event venue even before the working lights had been turned off. I was here, and nothing was going to get in my way of this list item.

The Opening Ceremony was even more fun than I had hoped it would be. The Russians outdid themselves with a phenomenal projection animated stage, world class ballet, and massive flying sets. The part that I enjoyed the most was also the geekiest. It didn’t show up well on TV, but the members of the 70,000 person audience each had an intelligent LED light around their neck. These LEDs acted as individual pixels on a stadium sized screen. At one point, the audience was doing the wave without anyone having to stand up or raise their arms. An animated wave traveled around the stadium with people-pixels as the basis for the screen.

opening-ceremony-1

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opening-ceromony-2

The Best Part of Attending the Olympics

The indisputably best aspect of attending the Olympics is the people you get to meet. Unlike other major sporting events (World Cup, Superbowl, World Series), the stars of the Olympics are extraordinary people who live mostly ordinary lives. With the exception of a few big names, most Olympians are relatively unknown outside their small sporting circles. They have the paychecks of normal people, but a superhuman passion for their sporting events.
Football (soccer) star, Lionel Messi made 16 million Euros playing in 2013 (before endorsements!) He has the best coaches, the best gear, and the best fans in the world. He is incredibly impressive, but not the type of player I like to cheer for (he has enough fans!).
For me, the ultimate athlete is the no-name who is out practicing on the field after finishing her 9 hour shift at a Subway restaurant. These are the types of people who inspire me. Their passion is true and unspoiled.
At the Olympics, these types of people are everywhere.

New York Joe

On my train ride to the Olympic park one morning, I sat next to a particularly obnoxious New Yorker. He loudly blabbered on about nothing to no one in particular. Taking the universal social cue of an entire audience avoiding eye contact, he set his sights on me.

The man started into his story without being prompted.

New York Joe was born and raised in the Bronx. He was a single father (he was now widowed) bringing up his three daughters. He was a retired NYPD police officer, and had been living just outside of New York City hustling to keep his family afloat. His youngest daughter had always been into hockey, and at a young age started to make a name for herself. She worked incredibly hard, practiced daily, and dedicated her life to her sport. In her most recent competition, she made it onto the USA Olympic hockey team. There was just one problem, her dad couldn’t afford to get her to Sochi.

New York Joe rallied his family, who in turn rallied their community via church speeches and social media, New York Joe was able to raise $25,000, enough money to take his Olympian daughter to the Olympics, and ensure his entire family got to see her play.

He told me the last part of his story with tears in his eye. I involuntarily reciprocated.

Jamie Anderson

Several hours later I sat at the bottom of the course of the Ladies Snowboarding Slopestyle competition. The crowd was dancing to house music, laughing with the funny announcer, and enjoying the exciting new Olympic event. It was clear that the X Games had had a big impact on the Winter Olympics.

ladies-snowboardThe crowd favorites were clearly Sarka Pancochova (CZE), Jenny Jones (GBR) and Sina Candrian (SUI). The top three were practically guaranteed medals before the event even started, the crowd was just watching to see what the order would be.

On her second run, Pancochova fell hard (she cracked her helmet but was not injured). Jenny Jones fell too. Suddenly, all expectations were thrown out. Coming up toward the end was Jamie Anderson, a relatively unknown American.

Seemingly out of nowhere Jamie Anderson nailed her run. The crowd went ballistic.

As her gold medal was announced, reporters rushed her and her family. Her family burst into cheers, and tears and Jamie, draped in an American flag, beamed as she embraced the crowd.

jamie-anderson

I watched at two arms length as she became an Olympic national hero. It was the culminating day of her life, and the crowd got to partake in her excitement.

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A Little Old Canadian Lady

The next day I attended the Men’s Short Track Speed Skating final. I rooted on fellow Seattlite, JR Celski, while someone behind me rooted on his Canadian competitor as close to my ear as possible.

I turned around and found a tiny old woman. She couldn’t have been more than 5 feet tall, and must have been over 90 years old. She unveiled a toothy smile, and explained that she was rooting for her grandson. Her energy was unparalleled. She screamed, jumped and heckled well past her years. I did my best to rival her. Eventually, she turned to me to make a truce. She promised to root for my team as long as I supported her in cheering on her family member. Our entire section joined her in her efforts without prompting. US vs Canada became US and Canada.

speedskating

There Are Only Two Ways To Live Life

There are only two ways to live life. You can either read your life story or you can write it.

This week, I was lucky enough to write a new chapter of the story of my life. It was filled with a massive Russian party, the world’s best athletes, and most importantly, normal people who overcame their worries and fears to live and write their own exciting life stories. The experience was inspiring, enlightening and most importantly, fulfilling.

It is adventures like these that make it all worth it. No complaints necessary.

23 comments… add one

  • Julia Feb 19, 2014

    Thank you Danny for this awesome account of the Olympic Games. I’ve been saddened by the obvious malicious negative media in the US. Our Media is dead set to embarrass Russia, but I think it only embarrasses ourselves. I’m so glad you are having a great time.

    I agree that a failed trip is a valuable part of a relationship. Though the best experience is having some major problems, but still making it an okay trip in the end by working it out together. Makes for the best stories too.

    • Danny Dover Feb 20, 2014

      Hey Julia!

      > Our Media is dead set to embarrass Russia, but I think it only embarrasses ourselves.

      Agreed, I think the public is smarter than the demographic that the media is optimizing for. A couple funny photos is one thing but a constant flow of misinformation is just irresponsible.

      > Though the best experience is having some major problems, but still making it an okay trip in the end by working it out together. Makes for the best stories too.

      I couldn’t agree more with your last statement :-) My biggest mistakes are also my best stories.

  • Sanjana Feb 19, 2014

    That is a wonderful, and refreshingly different, account of the Sochi Olympics! Glad you had such a good time!
    I only heard the negative stuff about Sochi (on twitter, Jimmy Kimmel etc), so it’s nice to read a positive aspect of the event.

    Loved the old Canadian lady! I’d like to believe I’ll be like her someday! :D

    • Danny Dover Feb 20, 2014

      > Loved the old Canadian lady! I’d like to believe I’ll be like her someday! :D

      Me too. :-) I felt grateful for having the opportunity to meet her.

  • Leigh Shulman Feb 19, 2014

    Yes, Danny, thanks for this. I stopped listening to reports of the Olympics bc it’s been sounding more like a bunch of 10 year olds mercilessly teasing a kid on the playground. How refreshing to read and see photos of something inspiring and interesting.

    Congrats, too, on reaching this life list milestone!

    Oh, and yeah, you had a NY moment. I was on Joe’s side from the beginning. I lived in NY long enough to know and appreciate his type.

    • Danny Dover Feb 20, 2014

      > I stopped listening to reports of the Olympics bc it’s been sounding more like a bunch of 10 year olds mercilessly teasing a kid on the playground.

      Wow, that is disturbingly accurate. :-/

      Russia, like any major country, has some serious and legitimate problems. It is unfortunate that the media conversation and action centered around what it did. There could have been a much more meaningful dialogue in its place.

      > Oh, and yeah, you had a NY moment. I was on Joe’s side from the beginning. I lived in NY long enough to know and appreciate his type.

      :-D

  • Markus Allen Feb 19, 2014

    Danny,

    It took me most of my life to figure out that almost everything in life is a whopper of a lie.

    Everything from Y2k to 9/11 to school shootings – lies.

    And now you’re confirming that the news is lying about the Olympics in Sochi.

    Thank you for your courage.

    Thank you for revealing the truth.

    If I were single, I’d be following you in your footsteps and traveling the globe.

    Life is good!

    • John Walsh Feb 19, 2014

      Markus,

      The lesson here is to never believe the media and to stay single. Great advice!

    • Danny Dover Feb 20, 2014

      Thanks for the support Markus! I appreciate it. It keeps me writing.

  • Amanda Feb 19, 2014

    Congratulations on another life accomplishment! This is my favorite post about Sochi (from anyone) since the Olympics began. I applaud your positive, personal experience and connections. Reading this post made me forget that I’m at work. :) Thanks for that.

    • Danny Dover Feb 20, 2014

      Thanks Amanda! :-)

      That is the nicest compliment I have heard all year. Thank you!

  • Kate L. Feb 19, 2014

    I’m a fan of the unknown athletes, too. And I love seeing someone’s reaction when they’ve reached a personal best, regardless of where that puts them in the overall rankings.

    But you didn’t tell us who the hockey player is!

  • Tom Feb 19, 2014

    Difficult trips are the best kind!

    I was told that I absolutely needed to check out “what was happening” in Sochi, by someone who seemed to take enjoyment in the fact that the press was making fun of them. So I decided that I should avoid all Olympics related media, and was successful! Eliminating popular/current events and news from my life makes me so much happier!

    However, I’m totally OK with the fact that this article broke that streak. :D

    • Danny Dover Feb 20, 2014

      Hey Tom!

      I am glad to hear you are prioritizing your information sources. :-) Not sure how I made the list but glad I slipped through!

      Cheers bud!

  • Dawn Shepard Feb 19, 2014

    Danny! Congratulations!
    I was so excited for you and blown away when I saw your picture at the opening ceremonies on fb. How awesome! Finding out that most of the olympic participants have jobs and often not a lot of money to get them to the games inspired me. I kept telling Cyrus, “these people have full-time jobs and ALSO train!?” Amazing.

    • Danny Dover Feb 20, 2014

      Hey Dawn!!!

      Always good to hear from you!

      > Finding out that most of the olympic participants have jobs and often not a lot of money to get them to the games inspired me. I kept telling Cyrus, “these people have full-time jobs and ALSO train!?” Amazing.

      I keep thinking about that while working and exercising. The athletes are great inspirations for a lot of people. It sounds like you and I are both included on that list.

  • Nathania Feb 19, 2014

    Great article, but Jamie Anderson didn’t win her gold medal out of nowhere. She’s pretty well-decorated in her sport at the x-games.

    • Danny Dover Feb 20, 2014

      Interesting! I didn’t realize that while watching her compete. I think most of crowd had already made up their minds on the top three (the other three I mentioned in the post) and was shocked/elated by the surprise.

      Sounds like I need to watch the X Games more.

      Thanks! :-)

  • Michael McBain Feb 20, 2014

    I follow skeleton, particularly women’s skeleton. There are about 30-40 women who compete in the World Cup from October to February, and every four years the Winter Olympics is the final event of the season. Only the top 20 are eligible for the Olympics. None of them are household names, and most of them have to work at various jobs during the off-season to be able to compete. Apart from the Olympics, most of the spectators for their sport are probably family and friends or the occasional skeleton tragic. At Sochi, it was clear that their rivalry was confined to the ice, and that they are good friends when the race is over. One of the Australian snowboarders basically said [in relation to Australian Olympic officials who were trying to boss her around] ‘who are these dickheads? I’ve never seen them while I’ve been busting my arse to qualify for these Games, and I’m not about to listen to them now’. There is a community of athletes, and their trainers and support teams, which exists outside the hoopla and fake world of the Olympics.

    • Danny Dover Feb 20, 2014

      Hi Michael, thanks for sharing your insights. It is interesting to hear about it from someone (you) who knows more about the backstories of the competitors. The more I learn about the stories of the Olympians the more I respect their work. Glad to hear that the competition was strong but focused in the right spots.

      Cheers!

  • Sarah Feb 24, 2014

    I feel like you never quite know someone well until you travel together, and definitely not until something unexpected or bad happens on said trip. What a very smart condition for your future wife. I agree on my end as well.

    I’m so glad to hear and see you got to the Olympics. That is amazing and wonderful and thank you for sharing your stories! New-ish reader who finally had a moment to comment :)

    • Danny Dover Feb 24, 2014

      Hey Sarah!

      Glad you agree :-) Not sure if my half qualifies but you know what they say about great minds :-p

      Just subscribed to your blog, looking forward to learning more :-) Thanks for checking in!

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