Feb 24 2014

Escape from the Winter Olympics: Russia Rear View

After being in Russia for over 20 days, it is time to hook up that unholy itinerary and get back the 12 hours I lost coming out here for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. I leave Sochi’s airport at 5:30am MSK on Tuesday, and after stops in Moscow, Zurich, and D.C., I should be back at LAX by 7:09pm PST Tuesday. February 25th is going to go down as a sick time warp, and honestly, nothing less should be the expectation.

I spent my first week talking about the America-to-Russia transition, and I followed that up with what it was like to be me in Sochi.  Naturally, I shall spend this time trying to fit in what it’s been like to be here these last three weeks.

Except … I kind of already did that in my last post for Team USA, where among other things I compared my time here to a role playing video game.  Working with the United States Olympic Committee is something I’ll forever be grateful for, and not just because they let me come here in the middle of a semester and be a journalist. My partners at the USOC really pushed me, both stylistically, editorially (I may or may not have made up a word just now), creatively, and collaboratively. I was getting to this last week a little bit, but in a lot of ways, I feel like I grew up here in Sochi, and I felt like a professional. So there you go – my activity here as a worker was going to lead to one major takeaway, and it was a positive. After all, I have several stories or previews that came out of here as a result:

My favorite story was the one I only alluded to. Just as there is a lot of excitement now for the judged extreme sports of halfpipe and slopestyle freestyle skiing and snowboarding, there isn’t nearly as much support for alpine snowboarding. United States alpine snowboarder Justin Reiter, who became known as the athlete who lived in his truck to save costs in preparation for Sochi, did not have a successful Olympic debut. He didn’t make it past the first round in his two events. The winner of both events was Russian snowboarder Vic Wild. Wild was born in the United States and was a teammate of Reiter’s until Wild got to the point where he could no longer continue his snowboarding career. Wild briefly retired until he had an opportunity to join the Russian team, which would mean more funding and support. He married his Russian girlfriend, fellow snowboarder Alena Zavarzina, which allowed him to obtain citizenship, and he took advantage of the new support system from Russia and wound up winning two gold medals – his wife won a bronze on the same day he won his first gold. While Reiter did not enjoy success on his own, he contributed to his friend Wild’s career week, helping coach him and encourage him on Wild’s way to beating racers he had never beaten before. Check out what he had to say about the context of him leaving the United States for Russia:

Russia wound up winning the gold medal count (13) and the overall medal count (33). Of course, many will focus on the fact that Russia still spent more billions of dollars for these Olympics (51) than they won total medals. For all the money spent on the Sochi Games, the legacy of these games will probably key on things that had little to do with athletic competition: #SochiProblems, security threats, anti-LGBTQ policies, Pussy Riot vs. the Cossacks, everlasting environmental concerns. Etc, etc. When the Winter Games come to South Korea in 2018, it will be interesting to see the evolution of our criticisms toward that country, the International Olympic Committee, and athletics in general.

Speaking of medal counts and criticism, I came to Sochi thinking that I was going to do some hardcore statistical analysis. If I had a rep coming in, that was it. I didn’t mention it last week, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that it was going to be a stretch to apply any depth to most of these sports here.  I found myself talking about start times and curves often, but those made for better play-by-play tweets than post-performance commentary. If I watched more hockey, maybe stats comes up more. But some things don’t need a bigger breakdown. For example, watching the mixed biathlon relay, it’s clear where the United States can start to clean their performance up, as they missed 13 shots. Only Estonia, the last place finisher, missed more shots. The winner, Norway, missed only two. The United States has the right to bear arms, but not the precision to shoot accurately just yet.

Disappointment was the flavor of the month for many assessing the United States’ performance at these games, and their articles were seasoned with the bitter taste in their mouths. The women’s hockey team was inches away from putting Canada away for a gold medal – instead, they got hit with the same shock the San Antonio Spurs were jolted with in the NBA Finals, and you never thought they had a chance in overtime. The United States women’s hockey team defeated Switzerland, the eventual bronze medalists, 9-0 earlier in the tournament. It’s never good when you score that many goals early on and don’t have enough left for when it matters most.

A similar example of this is the men’s hockey team. They looked great early, highlighted by a 3-2 win over Russia that foreshadowed Russia’s biggest disappointment athletically here and made a star out of T.J. Oshie and his shootout ability. Unfortunately, they failed to score in their last two games against Canada and Finland, walking out without a medal and some lost pride and respect.

And that’s not even to get to the speed skating and figure skating teams. The United States failed to medal in speed skating, and short track earned a silver in relay but that’s it. Charlie White and Meryl Davis took home gold in ice dance, and they had a significant role in the new team event that saw the United States win bronze. But for the first time since World War II, the United States failed to place a singles skater (men or women) on the podium.

In all, the United States failed to defend any of the nine gold medals won in Vancouver. Lindsey Vonn (alpine skiing), Evan Lysacek (figure skating), and Seth Wescott (snowboarding) didn’t make it to Sochi due to injury. Hannah Kearney (freestyle skiing), Bode Miller (alpine skiing), and Steven Holcomb’s crew (bobsled) at least took home bronze medals. Shani Davis (speed skating), Bill Demong (Nordic combined), and Shaun White (snowboarding) failed to medal at all.

But there were a lot of positive developments as well for the United States. The team replaced those lost gold medals with nine new ones: Davis/White (figure skating), Mikaela Shiffrin, Ted Ligety (alpine skiing), Joss Christensen, Maddie Bowman, David Wise (freestyle skiing), Sage Kotsenburg, Jamie Anderson, and Kaitlyn Farrington (snowboarding). All of them are under 30, and only Ligety and Davis/White had won a medal before at all. In fact, of the 20 individual medalists, 14 won medals for the first time in Sochi. Only the 20 new medalists from the 2002 games exceeded that mark, and Sochi is a long way away from Salt Lake City. Speaking of being away from home, the United States won more medals outside of North America in Sochi than in any other Winter Olympics. And of the 12 new events, the United States won medals in 7 of them, including 5-of-9 gold medals and 9-of-28 total medals. Yes, these new Winter Olympic events saved the United States from further medal disaster, but it also was a good window into what the United States is good at, which may coincide with the overall direction of the Winter Olympics.

Anyways, my time is up here. I don’t want to get too cheesy, nor do I need to. I’m going to be talking about Russian times forever. Especially once you consider the last day/night of the Games that culminated in the Closing Ceremony. I went from meeting Holcomb to witnessing the end … to taking all kinds of pictures with my favorite volunteers while athletes serenaded the dance floor inside of Fisht. I signed a bunch of jackets, traded my USA scarf for a Team Brazil scarf (whatup, Rio 2016), and enjoyed the karaoke bar with all the nations. If I show up on a bunch of random Russian Instagrams, I won’t be surprised.

In the meantime … I have to pack and get my hours back. Spasibo, Sochi. It’s been real.


2 pings

  1. How to view 28 medals | USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media, & Society

    […] As pointed out by Law Murray, a graduate student at the Annenberg journalism school at the University of Southern California who was a credentialed reporter at the Games, all nine of the gold medalists are under age 30. […]

  2. 3 Wire Sports | Alan Abrahamson

    […] As pointed out by Law Murray, a graduate student at the Annenberg journalism school at the University of Southern California who was a credentialed reporter at the Games, all nine of the gold medalists are under age 30. […]

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