We live in the year 2014. Therefore, when discussing the Sochi Olympics online, certain words are trending. The most popular trending phrases seem to be “security” and “Putin” or maybe “Alex Ovechkin.”
Here is the phrase that does not seem to be trending: “Russian Sports Fans.”
Anyone else thinking about them? Anyone else think it is odd they have not been mentioned much?
Because just wait and see. Those fans are going to make these Winter Olympics something very cool. No pun intended.
During 30 years of covering international sports, this much I've learned: If anything, Russian civilians are even nuttier about sports than American civilians.
Nina Edmunds, the mother of San Jose, Calif. figure skater Polina Edmunds, grew up in Tver, Russia. It is a city of 400,000 located between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Nina's dad was a hockey player. Nina was a figure skater. They were a big sports family. She was 12 years old when Moscow played host to the 1980 Summer Games.
“When I was young, we only had two channels of television,” Nina said before leaving for Sochi. “But when the Olympic Games were being held, the two channels would show the Olympics. And people spent a lot of time in front of the TV, screaming and yelling.”
Gee. Sounds as if that could have been Livermore or Sunnyvale — or Green Bay or Pittsburgh — as much as Tver.
Which is no surprise. In the former Soviet Union, sports was emphasized and promoted as a symbol of Communist greatness. Civilians were encouraged to support their sports heroes in the most maximum way possible. When the USSR dissolved into Russia and other republics, the love of games persisted.
And here's something to keep very much in mind: Russian fans have been waiting for these Olympics for almost forever. They will be the first Winter Games held in the country. The only Summer Olympics were those 1980 Moscow Games, boycotted by the USA and therefore without all the world's top athletes.
“I think there is much excitement,” said Nina Edmunds, who has relatives in Russia who will journey to Sochi. “This is a country with very good sports systems, very talented kids. And sports is part of Russian culture.”
It is no accident, for example, that the world's second-best pro hockey league, the KHL (the K stands for “Kontinental”), sprouted out of Russia in 2008. Joe Pavelski, the San Jose Sharks forward who will play on the USA hockey team in Sochi, spent time on a KHL team during the NHL's lockout of 2012-13. Pavelski played for Dinamo Minsk, based in Belarus. But road trips took him to games inside Russia, where 21 of the 28 KHL teams are based.
“There are some really good NHL-caliber type facilities,” Pavelski said. “In certain cities, like St. Petersburg, there's definitely that feeling you get in NHL buildings.”
What about the crowds?
“I would compare it to a soccer-type atmosphere,” Pavelski said.
With fewer hooligans and vuvuzelas, one hopes. But the spectator enthusiasm at events should definitely ooze through the television cameras. The hockey tournament will be the games' focus, given the nation's obsession with the sport.
A recent ESPN.com story prominently featured a quote from Vladimir Cherkasov, manager of the Sochi ice rinks. Cherkasov said he was still simmering over the way Russia played at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, particularly during an embarrassing 7-3 loss to Canada in the tournament quarterfinals.
“Other teams will come here to win or lose,” Cherkasov said of the Sochi Games. “We will win, or we will die.”
However, it's not just a hockey country. Figure skating fans, says Nina Edmunds, can reel off the names of Russian gold medalists the way that Americans speak of their favorite baseball or basketball players.
Despite early reports that ticket sales were lagging, a media release by Sochi organizers in mid-January said that 70 percent of seats were already sold and that 75 percent of those seats were purchased by Russians. Ticket prices run from 500 rubles ($15) to 40,000 rubles ($1,200). The average Russian monthly salary is 30,000 rubles ($890).
“The most popular events are hockey, biathlon, figure skating, freestyle and snowboard,” the organizing committee said. “We are expecting strong last-minute sales and do not envisage having empty seats.”
Empty seats would certainly not make Vladimir Putin happy. The Russian leader has a huge stake in the games' success. He personally presented Sochi's Olympic bid in 2007 to the International Olympic Committee. His original pledge of spending $12 billion in government money to build the Olympic facilities has eventually grown to an estimated $50 billion.
Cities in the United States might spend a few million to land a Super Bowl or Final Four. But $50 billion? What sort of country would utilize that sort of government money on a sports festival?
Answer: One that realizes how much its citizens will be geeked up to watch every minute of the next two weeks, on television or in person. Assuming the security situation is handled smoothly, the most trending phrase in Sochi over the upcoming days won't be hard to predict.
What is the Russian translation for: “Tape delay? Are you kidding?”