When they aren’t rooting for their respective nations, spectators, many of whom have traveled from far and wide, are out and about the Olympic Park taking pictures and enjoying its various amenities. No, the spirit of the Games isn’t confined to event venues and stadiums. Even on a grey, dreary afternoon, performers, youthful volunteers and, of course, the excited sports fans add bursts of color to the Olympic Park.
There are sights and sounds around every corner that will surprise you, have you laughing or make you want to dance -- and you never know whom or what you might run into.
Russians Andrei Kuriukov, Andrei Kitov, Slava Zimlikov and Oleg Romanov are in town from Samara. They arrived four days ago and were getting ready to head into the Bolshoy Ice Dome to catch a hockey game.
“Klahss!” (Russian for “awesome”) Oleg exclaimed when asked to describe the games. “In one word: Klahss!”
The men said they’ve enjoyed everything about the Olympic experience so far. They even enjoyed getting caught in the rain at Rosa Khotur the night before. But what they seem to love most is the friendly atmosphere among fans.
“Everyone is constantly happy. There’s no aggression here,” Andrei said. “We all hang out after hockey games -- the Russians, Slovaks, the Swiss. It’s a very friendly environment. Even last night when we played the Norwegians, we were out having a good time with them afterwards.”
At the Switzerland house, Eddie Meyers and Nick Taylor (the father and fiancé, respectively, of U.S. bobsled racer Elana Meyers) were spotted having lunch during an afternoon stroll around the Olympic Park.
“I think they did a great job on the games; the venues are really good,” Meyers said. “The roads are great, security’s been great, getting back and forth on the train has been great. And the folks have been very friendly as well, very helpful.”
Even though he admitted his college dorm room was nicer than his hotel here in Sochi, Meyers doesn't seem to care. “You don’t expect to come to the Olympics and spend time in your room,” he said.
Plus, the former Navy football player has bigger things to worry about while in Russia -- namely, his daughter’s performance. “When Elana’s racing I’m always nervous. My only other Olympic experience was in Vancouver and before that, my wife and I didn’t sleep for days. I didn’t sleep much last night either.”
Elana Meyers’ sled, the top U.S. bobsled that she drives along with brakeman Lauryn Williams, finished second Wednesday.
Sanjin Lee, from Seoul, South Korea, and her friend Yoojin, were excited for the ladies’ figure skating competition, where their compatriot and defending Olympic gold medalist, Kim Yu-na, is once again among the favorites to win.
Lee said that the Olympic Park is bigger than she expected and she enjoys the live concerts that take place throughout the day. But what she seems most impressed by is the weather.
“In Sochi, the weather is quite good, but the temperature is quite high, so it’s a good atmosphere for enjoying the Olympic Games,” she said, not surprising Lee spent the better part of last year studying Russian in chilly Moscow, compared to which Sochi is a tropical oasis.
Rich Swingle, his wife Joyce and their friend Liz Jennings are visiting from the U.S. Rich is an actor who has been performing at Olympic venues, and Joyce used to work in the marketing department of Sports Illustrated. Between the two of them, Joyce and Rich have been to the games in Lillehammer, Barcelona, Beijing, Vancouver and London, and they can now add Sochi to that list.
The American trio was impressed with the venues, the levels of security and the warmth of the Russian people. Joyce recalled having met the lead singer of the Russian rock band Nana at a hockey game the night before. “All these Russian people were coming up to take pictures with him, so we figured he must be famous and just asked him, ‘Who are you?’”
Jennings says that for her, the cultural experience of interacting with the people has been worth the trip alone. Rich even found himself rooting for Team Russia in hockey (when they weren’t playing the U.S of course). “Growing up you had the Cold War, and now here we are in the same place cheering each other on.”
Jean Claude Kobiashvili and his wife Alexandra made the short trip from Georgia to support their athletes. Draped with the Georgian flag, Jean Claude showed off his pride for his country and its Olympic competitors.
“Our delegation is small,” he said. “We’re not likely to take the gold or even the bronze, but we’re participating. That’s what’s most important.”
The couple has been in Sochi since the games began, and Alexandra said the experience so far has been “excellent.” They were excited for the ladies’ figure skating competition to begin not only because it’s a fan favorite event, but it is also one of the few sports in which an athlete from Georgia is competing this year. “Our girl, Elene Gedevanishvili is skating tonight, so we’ll be rooting for her,” Alexandra said.
“The organization is great and the people here all mean well,” said Evgenii, the sole Russian speaker among his gang of spirited fans from Germany. “We’re walking around in German gear, and no one is giving us a hard time. They want to take pictures with us. These are exceptionally friendly people here.”
The only thing Evgenii couldn’t understand is why there aren’t more foreign (non-Russian) spectators around the Olympic Park and in the stands.
At night, major Russian pop stars take to the park’s main stage, but during daytime, there is no shortage of music and entertainment either. Here are just a few of the most memorable acts:
A Cossack folk ensemble quickly gathered a crowd with their spirited songs and old-world Russian dancing.
A team of folk dancers from Chukotka, a region in the Russian Far East, performed the songs and dances of Chukotka’s indigenous people. Their repertoire incorporated traditional Eskimo or “Chukchi” instruments, like drums made of fur and leather, and tribal songs, chants and dances. They occasionally threw some hip-hop breakdancing into the mix as well.
Blasting western pop songs, a local dance crew entertained Olympic fans with a flirty line dance, occasionally pulling an unsuspecting man from the crowd to join in on the fun.
The giant team of volunteers at the Sochi Games is made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of college students from all over the country. They’re energetic, friendly, bubbly, eager to help and enthusiastic. Most of them speak English or other foreign languages and look to always be having a lot of fun, whether they’re scanning tickets or helping people find their way around.
Here, a group of young men and women lined up to form a row of free high-fives at the entrance to the park.
But the volunteer team isn’t without its share of angst-y teenagers (yes, it’s a universal phase). This young lady is giving out free hugs. Which is very nice. Just don’t bother asking her how she feels about it.
“This wasn’t my idea,” she said. “They gave me the sign and told me to hold it. I hate this volunteering thing. I don’t even know why I’m here.”
Nineteen-year-old sailors Damir Khamitov and Alexei Schivilov are in the Russian Navy. Given their young age and low rank, they’ve been sent to Sochi to work as volunteers on navel ships in the port. They haven’t been to any sporting events yet and say they wouldn’t mind seeing a hockey game. But mostly they seem determined to appear as bored and unimpressed as possible.
“The games are okay. I was expecting better. I was expecting more,” Schivilov said. More of what? “I don’t know. More of something.”