Cultural Learnings from the Olympic Winter Games
A week on from the end of the Winter Olympics, Raj Koria, reflects on his time in Sochi.
In the days since my return from Sochi, a lot of people have asked what it was like being an Englishman in Russia. At first I thought I was gaining a genuine cultural experience of the country. I soon realised however that most of my experiences in Sochi were not typical of a visitor in Russia but were in fact a product of working at an Olympics Games. The area in which the Olympic Park and my hotel were located was a large, mostly brand new, controlled zone well away from the centre of Sochi. General access to it without a ticket or accreditation was not easy. During my three weeks there I only left this area on the few occasions I ventured into the centre of Sochi. Consequently almost everyone I met was in this artificial bubble and was either working at or attending the Games. It was therefore difficult at times to determine which of my experiences were typical of Russia and which were a product of being at the Games.
For example, I got the impression that ‘starters’ was merely a word that appears at the top of the first page of the menu in Russian restaurants. If you order something from that page you may get it first, you may get it after your main, you may get it after your dessert or you may not get it at all. Actually that applied to anything you asked for, not just the starter. Ordering in a restaurant in Russia seemed to be a non-lethal version of Russian roulette. However I discovered that this phenomenon was peculiar to the Olympic venues and as soon as I ventured further afield service standards were high and comparable to back home. This was because all the restaurants in the Olympics venues and my accommodation had only opened shortly before the Games and all the staff were new. Also, on my second day there, a waiter mentioned to a Russian-speaking colleague that they had not yet been paid. Although that may have been rectified soon after, it might further explain the level of service throughout our stay.
Another consequence of being in this bubble is that you are not always aware of what the rest of the world is focusing on. For example, someone in London tweeted me to ask about the reaction on the ground to the controversy in the result of the women’s figure skating. I had to go online to find out what this controversy was as no-one seemed to be talking about it at the IBC. A far more serious illustration of this is the brutal manner in which Russian police arrested members of the protest band Pussy Riot in Sochi city. Until I forwarded the article on the BBC News website which showed footage of the incident, none of my colleagues had heard about it and I found that no-one was talking about something that was a major news story which took place only a few miles away.
Before this appalling incident took place the one thing most people who I met were taking away from these Games was that they challenged stereotypes about Russia. I heard many people say how surprised they were at how friendly and welcoming our hosts were. You may have seen the malfunction at the opening ceremony when one of the five Olympic rings did not open. There seemed to be a feeling amongst people I spoke to in the IBC that this was a source of deep embarrassment for the organising committee and, by extension, the Russian authorities. There was therefore pleasant surprise when in the closing ceremony the organisers chose to revisit this incident in a self-deprecating manner by pretending the malfunction was happening again before the fifth ring eventually opened. It was very sad therefore that the values of togetherness and camaraderie, which are at the core of the Games and the Olympic movement, stopped at the borders of the Olympic Park and did not guide the actions of those policeman.
I am finishing this post having had a couple of days back at home to reflect on my experiences. The Pussy Riot incident unfortunately soured what was otherwise a very positive impression of Russia that Sochi gave me. The experience of attending and working at an Olympic Winter Games was nevertheless fantastic. When working on such a long term sports event, the ability to be on the ground and put your work over the preceding years into context is invaluable. The broadcast contracts I worked on went into details on things like the International Broadcast Centre and production facilities. Understanding what that means in practice helps greatly when working on the contracts for the next sports event. I was glad that it was only three weeks though. Between long working days and making the most of being there, sleep was the biggest loser and Working in a cramped air conditioned office for three weeks meant that everyone fell ill at some point. I just happened to be the first who then coughed my virus on to everyone else – sorry guys! My first priorities when I got back? Sleep, lots of it, a decent meal and a long overdue haircut – with my limited Russian a visit to the salon at the IBC was not a risk I was willing to take! Bolshoi Spasiba and dos vedanya!