Sochi gets a big ‘thank you’ for a wonderful Olympics

BY RICK MORRISSEY Sports Columnist

February 23, 2014 10:58AM

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Updated: February 24, 2014 10:49AM

SOCHI, Russia — What a wonderful ending to a wonderful Olympics.

The planet never had seen a collection of talent and skill like the one Canada put on the ice for the men’s hockey final Sunday. It was the perfect way to close these Games — with excellence.

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews gave us our local fix, scoring the first goal in Canada’s 3-0 victory against Sweden. That’s two gold medals and two Stanley Cups for Toews, if you’re keeping score at home. You should be because he always does.

‘‘I’m just lucky to be part of these teams that want to win as bad as I do,’’ he said.

In all, there were six Hawks in the game, three a side. And if Sochi’s citizens were to think of Chicago as ‘‘Hockeytown,’’ who would we be to argue?

But right back at ’em: Sochi was a lovely host. Few host cities have been under as much pressure going into an Olympics, and none of them produced the way this place did.

The people were gracious. Language was a challenge but not an impediment. I never had to wait more than five minutes for a bus. Trains were on time. What else do you need besides a place to sleep, competitions to watch and a hotel karaoke bar where Sun-Times colleague Mark Lazerus can sing the night and patrons away?

Sochi was far from the nightmare it had been scared up to be.

‘‘I don’t know how they could have done a better job,’’ said Sweden defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, another Hawk.

By helping the United States perform better? It was not a good Olympics for the United States. The women’s hockey team blew a two-goal lead late and lost the gold medal in overtime to Canada, the only opponent that matters to the United States in the sport. The men lost 1-0 in the semifinals to Canada, then lost 5-0 to Finland in a bronze-medal game in which it had zero interest.

The speedskating team didn’t win a medal, and it blamed Under Armour’s new racing suits for the struggles, even after changing back to the old ones.

And there wasn’t a whole lot of star power for the United States. The athletes with the highest gold-medal hopes — Chicago’s Shani Davis, Shaun White and Bode Miller — came up empty.

But that’s small stuff compared to the bigger picture. Much of the buildup to the Games centered on the threat of terrorism. We were braced for something that never came. That apprehension about Sochi might explain, in part, why some media members immediately jumped on what they considered poor accommodations. Sochi would be a mess, right from the start. That was going to the story of these Games.

Except that it wasn’t. It quickly became clear the Russians had it together.

But there was always the understanding that trouble wasn’t far away, whether it be in Chechnya, where extremists had threatened to disrupt the Games, or Ukraine, which is in the throes of a civil uprising. I would go days without thinking about the potential danger, then notice a trash can and wonder how someone might get a bomb inside. That’s how it was.

Although the mountains were spectacularly beautiful, the scenery couldn’t hide the fact that Russia treats human rights like something to be picked up and thrown out. Anti-gay laws hang over the country like a dark cloud. The mayor of Sochi declared there were no gay people in his city, which was a surprise to the people inside Cabaret Mayak, a gay bar in the city.

There was no ignoring that reality, as much as Russian president Vladimir Putin had hoped people would. In the months before the Games, he had released anti-government protesters from prison to give the impression he was a forward-thinking leader. Some Russian experts think a crackdown will arrive now that the Games are over.

Olympic organizers had set up a protest zone where people could air grievances. If only it hadn’t been seven miles from Olympic Park. It was empty most of the time.

There is no separating the Olympics from the outside world. The International Olympic Committee pretends the Games take place inside a cocoon. But the world presses in. No, check that: The world already is inside. The Olympics are populated by people.

People, not governments and politicians, are what make these events special. Russia was no exception. You get a bunch of Americans and Russians in a karaoke bar, and you quickly realize there are no differences, just a lot of earnest singing.

The Russian work for ‘‘thank you’’ is pronounced ‘‘spa-SI-ba.’’ Sochi gets a big one.


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