Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Goodness at these Games

Plenty to celebrate in Sochi

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SOCHI, Russia -- It is a constantly unravelling tapestry, a giant puzzle -- at the same time beautiful and cruel and frustrating with pieces missing here and there. The eyes of the world are upon it to mock, marvel and judge. Welcome to Sochi's Winter Olympics.

Dubbed the Disaster Games by cynics before they'd even set foot in Russia, this country has a lot to prove. They began that quest Friday and for the next 16 days will continue to push their Winter Olympics to be remembered as a showcase of what is great in the new Russia.

Certainly the intolerance aimed at gay people and organizers' heavy-handedness in steamrolling these Games onto the coast of the Black Sea without heed to cost has attached a bad odour many won't be able to get past.

But what country doesn't have its closet of skeletons? In Canada, we like to say we take care of our own, but there are homeless and disenfranchised in our country just as there are the excluded here in Russia.

So, let's not pretend our Winter Olympics in Vancouver were righteous or London's Summer Games were above reproach while Sochi is sinister. It's simply not true. Sochi, like all Olympics, has its problems and its injustices. Maybe more than some and likely less than others.

The Games will now begin in earnest and the focus will fall on athletic achievement.

To the locals, this is their moment that will echo in the halls of their memories forever.

While close to 40,000 congregated at Fisht Stadium to watch the lighting of the Olympic flame and a psychedelic parade of the world's athletes, a band of 60 or so volunteers pulled couches together in a makeshift living room in the lobby of the Fregat Hotel jammed up against the town of Adler's seaside esplanade.

Just 15 kilometres south of the Coastal Cluster village and its venues, these students had schlepped their way back to Adler after a day of volunteering at the airport, up the mountain and in the Olympic park.

When the first strains of their national anthem were heard on the pair of flat-screen TVs they'd rigged up on a marble countertop at one end of a skinny lobby, this room of kids rose up and sang. And laughed and shouted and glowed and cried.

"This is incredible. I never imagined taking part in such a great and unbelievable event for our country," said Victoria Alekseenko, a 19-year-old student of linguistics at Pyatigoki University.

"It's so big for me in my life. I feel needed. The young people in our country see this as a chance to experience the world and see interesting faces. This will be in my memory forever."

The ceremonies were broadcast on Russian television with commentators blaring announcements as each new country entered the stadium. But before they could announce the Russian team, their resplendent white costumes kicked off a storm of shouting and clapping at the Fregat Hotel.

"For me this is something special and unique in my life. This is the one time the Olympics will be in my country in my life," said 20-year-old student Kate Litvinova. "I wanted to volunteer for the recollections. To be able to tell my children and grandchildren. They will be proud of me and they can say, 'Grandma was part of the Sochi Olympics.' "

Litvinova said for her friends and the youth of Russia, this is a moment that will spark pride in their land.

"I couldn't imagine it could be such a huge event. This is a chance for my generation to be proud of its country. Young people in other places aren't always proud of their countries. This is a chance for our patriotism to rise," she said. "Before these Games, no one knew about Sochi. All over the world, they will say it's a wonderful place."

The last Olympics held in Russia were boycotted by more than 50 countries including Canada and the U.S. over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Those Games were scarred and remain a reminder of the Cold War.

"My parents told me about the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. How big it was in our country. But now is a different time and the world is happy the Olympics are here," said Litvinova.

One can surrender to the incompleteness of it here and allow frustration to take root. Or one can embrace it and trudge on. Struggle and get angry with the language barrier or accept the smiles from the legions of volunteers and play Olympic charades until an understanding is reached.

Say what one will about the ill-constructed media housing and the billions spent on highways, but that's not the story here. The story is the youth of the world, led by the children of Mother Russia, smiling and skating and skiing.

Nothing in this world is as uncomplicated as what appears on its surface and Sochi is no different. But there is good here. Lots of it. Like the great Vladislav Tretiak, hero of so many Russian hockey triumphs lighting the Olympic torch.

There's still lots of darkness in our world to kick. Let's celebrate the light, if only until this torch is extinguished.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2014 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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