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The coast is all right, but the mountains are where it’s at in Sochi

Snowboard - Winter Olympics Day 2

Snowboard - Winter Olympics Day 2

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — You know who really deserves a medal at these Olympic Games? The steel-spined drivers who navigate hairpin, cliffside switchbacks in giant buses, schlepping wide-eyed scribes like me around in the Mountain Cluster.

Up here in the mountains, about an hour’s drive from the Coastal Cluster, it suddenly feels like a Winter Olympics. The palm trees are replaced by towering firs and the Black Sea by jagged, snow-capped mountains. The main drag running through the region, past the Gorki and Rosa Khutor neighborhoods, is lined with charming hotels, bustling restaurants and lively bars. It looks like a ski town, like a Park City, like a Breckenridge, like an Aspen — like an Olympics.

It’s a far cry from the impressive but imposing Ring of Steel by the sea. Olympic Park is a sterile place, a labyrinthine system of 10-foot-tall fences and guardrails, asphalt and unsettled sod. The six venues are gorgeous outside and in, but the setting is cold, even in the sun.

Even down in Sochi, the beauty comes from the mountains looming large in the distance. It looks pretty up there. It looks even prettier when you get there.

And it looks (and is) a lot more fun, too. The sports are crazier, the athletes are looser, the fans are wilder. It would have been impossible not to have fun at the women’s slopestyle finals Sunday — amazing athletes performing amazing maneuvers in an amazing setting in amazingly mild temperatures.

Curmudgeons clinging to old-school ideas of what is and isn’t a sport should take a look at Czech boarder Sarka Pancochova, who wiped out so brutally after dropping 40 feet that she cracked the back of her helmet. After a scary moment, she calmly got up and boarded the rest of the way down. That’s hockey-player tough. Sure, there’s a smaller pool of athletes going for gold in some of these events than in, say, track and field or swimming. But that’s because fewer people are daring enough to try them.

Whether you were watching Jamie Anderson complete a U.S. slopestyle sweep at the Extreme Park, catching the downhill at the nearby Alpine Center, getting whiplash trying to follow the lugers at the serpentine Sanki Sliding Center, admiring the endurance of the skiathlon competitors at the Laura Center or gawking at the flying ski jumpers at the RusSki Center, you couldn’t help but shake your head in wonder.

The athletes are as awe-inspiring as the setting. Look, hockey is great. And, for my money, the Olympic men’s hockey tournament is the best sporting event in the world. But when was the last time you saw a 4-foot-11 woman on 9-foot-long skis go 90 mph and fly the length of a football field? It’s somehow less impressive than you probably have imagined — despite what it looks like on TV, they’re never more than about 10 feet off the ground — but it’s still the craziest damn thing you’ve ever seen.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s a good time down in the Coastal Cluster, too — in the arenas. Dutch speedskating fans are insane in a great way. The Finnish women’s hockey fans had a grand old time, even in a 3-1 loss to the United States. Curling crowds get crazier than you’d think. And I fully expect the men’s hockey games involving Russia are going to be among the loudest and wildest I’ll ever witness.

But once you leave the venue, it’s parking lots, bus queues and fences. If you want to have a good time, you have to take a cab, a train or a hike.

In the mountains? All you have to do is walk around. Or bar-crawl around. Or, hell, just look around. Up here, at the top of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s $9 billion highway to heaven, that’s all it takes to bring a smile to your face.


Twitter: @marklazerus

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