SOCHI, RUSSIA -- U.S. speedskater and St. Paul native Maria Lamb took her bike for a spin around the expansive Olympic Park earlier this week. This was a normal training ride, but she couldn't help but marvel at the different stadiums inside the coastal cluster, the epicenter of these Russian Olympics.
"For the athletes, at least, the venues are beautiful," she said. "It looks pristine and perfect and gorgeous and ready to go."
Something else caught her eye, too. A couple of Russian soldiers carrying machine guns, positioned near the Olympic torch. Lamb pulled over for an impromptu photo-op. They?didn't speak English but obliged her request nonetheless.
"I think they were fairly disappointed that I wasn't terrified of them," she said. "They were trying really hard not to laugh at me. I was like, you can't pass up two big burly Russians with huge rifles."
Hey, now that's the Olympic spirit, although the International Olympic Committee probably prefers Russia's tamer slogan of "Hot. Cool. Yours." in terms of its marketing appeal.
Sochi's image has taken a beating this week in anticipation of Friday's Opening Ceremony. Not that the bar was set high in terms of expectations, but Vladimir Putin's $51?billion ego trip managed to erode what little confidence remained once visitors (and journalists) started to arrive.
Hotels were either unfinished or lacking basic necessities, such as hot water, door knobs and shower curtains. My colleague Rachel Blount tried to open the door to her room after dinner Wednesday night and the handle snapped in two. This after our server at the hotel restaurant informed us that the establishment does not accept credit cards or give change after paying with cash.
Note to the boss: I'm not sure the exact amount of my "tip" since I didn't have ruble conversion handy, but we'll bring home the broken door handle and call it even.
It doesn't take a travel expert to realize that Sochi wasn't ready for this, at least outside the cocoon of the two clusters of venues. Unfinished construction projects dot the landscape, along with oddly placed shrubs and trees in otherwise rocky fields.
Workers scurry to finish projects or clean up messes. Stray dogs wander the streets, reportedly pursued by a pest control company contracted by the city. Daily reports and Twitter images surface of missing manhole covers and reporters getting locked inside their rooms and dirty water and that peculiar photo of two toilets in one stall that went viral.
Inside the Olympic bubble, however, the view is much different. The various venues encircling Olympic Park are massive and architecturally varied. The Caucasus Mountains provide a stunning backdrop, especially on a postcard day like Thursday with blue skies and temperatures near 50 degrees. (Flip flops seem more appropriate than boots for these Winter Games.)
It's impossible to ignore or minimize the absurd cost of these Games, the terrorist threats and Putin's record on human rights. Or what will become of this Black Sea resort locale once the circus packs up and leaves. That's all part of the narrative, too. But taken as a singular snapshot, Olympic Park looks spectacular and a cool scene for this event.
On the eve of the official opening, Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child" and Kool & The Gang's "Get Down On It" blared from the loudspeakers inside the park as visitors checked out venues and snapped selfies.
The Olympic rings attracted the most attention as fans, Olympic volunteers and even a few athletes stopped and posed for pictures with the symbol of the Games. One man stood underneath the rings and flexed his muscles. A young Russian woman mimicked a runway model before inviting her parents, brother and grandfather to join her for a group shot.
"We're here for the Opening," she said.
The athletes stay in the Olympic Village a short walk from the park. A guarded, gated fence surrounds the complex, which abuts the Black Sea and features a long row of stucco apartment buildings. Each country has its own building.
The village was remarkably quiet Thursday afternoon. A few athletes from various countries rode bikes down the road, but the street was mostly empty.
One male Canadian coach opened his window to take in the scene. He marveled at the accommodations inside the apartments but lamented that alcohol is not allowed on the premises.
"It's dead at night here," he said.
I can recommend one restaurant that serves a variety of Russian beer. He should bring cash, though. And don't expect change back.
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