SOCHI, Russia -- I don't know what I expected of this place.
After all, the idea of having the Winter Olympics where people have been swimming outdoors the last three days -- seemingly sane people, even if the Black Sea water now is a teeth-chattering 50 degrees -- seems even more remarkable when you see it first-hand. Where else would you be able to wear shorts and a T-shirt while taking a picture of a burning Winter Games cauldron with palm trees in the foreground?
After covering 10 Winter Olympics, including those in a frigid Norway in 1994 and a temperate but not balmy Vancouver in 2010, it simply is hard to wrap the mind around snow and ice sports on high-60-degree days, even if many of the sports are played indoors.
And it was impossible to envision from a distance just how striking this landscape is.
The Olympic Park and its sports venues also are attractive, in a Disneyland sort of way, but what makes it truly stunning are the snow-capped mountains in the distance and the Black Sea sparkling in the sunset, the way it looked from the Olympic Stadium just before the opening ceremony.
My one trip so far to the nearby mountains left my mouth agape. There were stands of birches and evergreens against the white peaks of the Caucasus range, a river tumbling along the road most of the way.
My walks on the promenade along the Black Sea have provided other breathtaking vistas. I live two blocks from Lake Michigan, and I always am enthralled by it, but being able to see a panorama with a massive body of water and high mountains together is something I won't forget.
Yes, there are people living in what essentially are hovels near the Olympic Park. And it is horrifying that the $51 billion Olympic undertaking has endangered and perhaps ruined forever some of the mountain environment.
But Russia is sadly not the only county with such contrasts. Mine is equally guilty of creating them.
That won't change what I suspect will be my overriding impression of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The natural beauty here has been a constantly delightful and soul-satisfying surprise.
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