Friday, March 17, 2006
When the Russians came in from the cold
Sports Illustrated writer and Carlisle resident Ed Swift covered the Turin Olympics and posted the following memory of the Games on the Sports Illustrated Web site. It is printed here by permission of the author.
"You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one." John Lennon's anthem "Imagine" was part of the Turin opening ceremonies, an interesting choice since Lennon asks us to imagine a world without countries, which would pretty much put the Olympics out of business. But we get its inclusion, and the song didn't seem out of place. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, was another dreamer, big time. De Coubertin wasn't interested in how many medals France won at the first Games. He just wanted lots of different countries to show up and compete. He practically lived by the final line of Lennon's song: "We hope someday you'll join us, and the world will live as one."
I'm not interested in how many medals the U.S. wins, either. Not in Turin, not in Salt Lake, not in any Olympics. Medal counts miss the whole point. Having been to 13 of these global gatherings, I happen to believe in the dream: that the Olympics are great because they bring people of different nationalities together who might not otherwise interact. The downside is it leads to traffic jams in otherwise sleepy little mountain towns.
Which isn't Turin. Turin's a real city, which makes it unique among Winter Olympic sites. I shall always think of Turin as the Games in which the Russians came in from the cold. Russia, and before Russia, the Soviet Union, has always been an Olympic power, but until Turin its spectators stayed mostly at home. In the era before the Communists lost power, that was because it was nearly impossible for an ordinary Soviet citizen to travel. In the years since The Wall came down, it's been a matter of economics. The ordinary Russian couldn't afford to come to the Games.
That's changed. Hundreds of Russians appeared at the Palavela figure skating venue every night, waving their tri-colored flags. They outnumbered the Americans, the Japanese and the Chinese. Rus-si-a! Rus-si-a! they would chant every time some yahoo Yank started with the U-S-A! U-S-A! The hot outfit at the Turin Games was the red-and-white Russian parka (269 euros), and during any stroll through the downtown area you could find dozens of people, both Russian and non-Russian, wearing them. The "evil empire" has become a fashion house.
Which brings me to my favorite moment. I was having dinner at a downtown restaurant when two fans wearing Russian hockey jerseys came in. It was the night of the Canada-Russia hockey game, and I asked them who'd won. They spoke no English, but they immediately understood and informed me animatedly that they had just come from the game and the Russians had beaten the defending gold medalists 2-0. I offered my congratulations.
A few minutes later a gentleman in a suit entered with a couple of men in Russian team parkas. The two Russian fans hailed them excitedly, and the suited man put his fingers up in the universal victory sign. They talked a moment, giddy from the win, then the "suit" went into the adjoining dining room nodding and laughing to begin a celebration.
My Russian acquaintances leaned over to my table, and in a tortured marriage of English and Russian, explained that the man who had just come in was the head of the Russian Olympic Committee, Leonid Tyagachev. Apparently it was a better restaurant than I'd thought. I had just settled back to my meal when four more fans came in middle-aged women bundled up against the cold with red-and-white Canadian flags, replete with maple leafs painted on their cheeks and foreheads. They were a sight. Seeing the two Russians in their hockey jerseys, the Canadian women immediately came over to their table. "Congratulations," they said, shaking the Russians' hands. "You guys were better than us. Just make sure you go all the way."
All four of them paid their respects. When the Russians tried to tell them that the head of the Russian Olympic Committee was in the next room, I leaned over to help. Then one of the men in the Russian hockey jerseys offered to introduce the women to the famous Tyagachev. The four Canadians, polite to a fault, followed him without a second thought, and from the adjoining room I could hear chairs being pushed back, laughter, good-natured thanks, congratulations and wishes for luck in the future.
A good moment, I thought, pouring myself another glass of Nebbiolo. Imagine.
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito