Our Feb. 10 hour focusing on the real story of Vladimir Putin's Russia featured an athlete-focused update from the city of Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympics are currently underway.
John Cherwa, deputy sports editor at The Los Angeles Times, gave us a broad rundown of the facilities, the opening ceremony and the opening rounds of competition in Sochi.
Tom Ashbrook: John, welcome back to On Point. Thanks for being with us.
John Cherwa: Well, I'm glad to be back.
TA: So we're seeing all kinds of reporting here about doorknobs falling off and rings that won't light up, but also seeing terrific vistas and some terrific winter sport. What’s your sense of how the games are going so far, John?
JC: You know, it was a difficult lead up. I mean they had a lot of problems. There's still stuff that's not finished. But as far as the actual competition is going, it's great. The venues are all completed. In fact, the venues were completed before the roads around them were completed. But I think we've pretty much settled into the usual Olympic routine. This doesn't seem too terribly different from any of the others.
TA: There's still coming out of Washington the sound of warnings about terrorism. Any whisper about that inside the Olympic bubble?
JC: That is something that I completely misjudged on — at least. I hope I did. I had some trepidation going over. But I feel totally, completely safe here in the bubble. A matter of fact I was talking to my colleague from the Chicago Tribune who basically came over with the same feeling, and says he doesn’t even think about it anymore. The thing is, it's not oppressive, I was thinking you'd be seeing non-stop military and police: nope. It's really just like the other games.
TA: what are the athletes there telling you, saying to you about the opening ceremonies on Friday night? Millions and millions watched them around the world, many in the United States. What about the athletes: what are they thinking of the spectacle?
JC: Well, they liked it. You know, the thing is you don't have your full contingent at an opening ceremony. For example, like the hockey team: the men's hockey team wasn’t here, the women's hockey team was playing the next day. But the people in the stadium really enjoyed it. Except for the fact that they were doing some things that they had to pump cold air into an already cold stadium, so it was one of the more frigid opening ceremonies. Something else they did differently was move up the athletes’ march earlier and rather than have them stand, they put ‘em in the seats. So that was a better experience for them.
TA: You’ve seen, this is, I guess ,your eighth Olympics now. Compare and contrast: opening ceremonies, mood, facilities. How does Sochi look?
JC: You know, the opening ceremony is always ‘Can you top this?’ and you know they just get more and more crazy. I could have gone without the 12-minute reenactment of ‘War and Peace.” Actually they should have done ‘Anna Karenina,’ it would have been a better story. These games are pretty much as they should be. I think that my overriding feeling is we're at the same place that we normally are, but it's getting there that has been the struggle. Things do not come easily in Russia getting things done do not come easily, and I think we’re all feeling a sense of that. But you know again I think it's all business as usual.
TA: The gay rights issue and Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law, as they put it: is that in the air, is it being talked about, or shunted aside at this point?
JC: I think it's totally in the background. No one's talked about, or very few people are talking about it. There hasn’t been any demonstration that I’m aware, of but of course we're only on the third day of competition and there are many more chances for that. But even like tomorrow, there’s a gay ski jumper who basically was asked one question about her partner and she said, ‘Yeah, no big deal, well, you know.’ So even that hasn’t really been much of an issue.
TA: And what about the hoary issue of the medal count: how’s that looking, how the U.S. doing, Russia for that matter, what's striking on the performance side?
JC: Well, Norway. Norway is just killing it, but they are involved in the sports that well, we don’t really care about. Which is like cross country, the biathlon. The Dutch are doing really well in the speed skating. The U.S., you know, swept the snowboard slope style — that was Sage Kotsenburg and Jamie Anderson. And that was kind of a surprise, I don’t think we expected that to happen. We picked up a bronze in the women's combined alpine this morning, so you know the U.S. is doing okay. They picked up a team medal in figure skating, but probably won’t do anything in the men’s and women’s, but will probably win gold in the ice dancing in a couple days.
TA: And what’s the anticipation — I know it's a while yet, but still — on hockey, well there's women’s and then there's men’s. What’s the anticipation there?
JC: Well there's no question that it's a two team race in women's hockey: U.S. and Canada. U.S. won, I believe, nine-nothing against Switzerland today and that was a team that Canada beat five-nothing the other day, so it’s gonna come down to that game. They’ll play once in pool play, and then undoubtedly will play for the gold .The men: eh, it's a little tough. I personally think that Russia – who’s not the favorite, Canada’s the favorite — I personally think the gold medal game will be Canada and Russia, because the crowd is just going to be unbelievable for the Russians, and that would be good game, just sort of a mishmash of NHL players.
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