SOCHI, Russia — The one item I forgot to pack? Sunscreen. I needed it almost every day.
The one item I remembered to pack? My heavy winter coat. It hung in my closet the entire three weeks. The weather was way too warm. One day the temperature nearly hit 80 degrees.
These were the weirdest Winter Olympics ever. And that was even before the stray dogs started showing up outside my breakfast place to snarf up leftover sausage, or the feminist punk band Pussy Riot was horsewhipped by a Cossack in the streets of Sochi.
(Mark down the last sentence as one that I have never previously written nor expect to write again.)
So, yes, the weirdest Winter Games ever. But have they been Winter Games worth celebrating? Absolutely, in so many ways.
Nothing has blown up. Spectators and athletes have been safe. When assessing an Olympics on a positive basis, that's where I always begin.
To be sure, we are not yet at the finish line. Several more medals are in contention before Sunday night's torch flameout. But the honchos from the United States Olympic Committee decided to hold their wrap-up session with the media here Saturday, to offer up their spin.
Scott Blackmun, the USOC's congenial and sharp chief executive, made sure to highlight that the USA was leading the medal count. Then he praised Sochi and the Games organizers, saying “it is amazing what they have done.”
Julie Chu, who will carry the American flag in the Closing Ceremony, spoke about how being in Sochi at the Games has been “incredible” and a “spectacular experience.” So I posed an obvious follow-up question to both Blackmun and Chu.
“Will either of you come back to Sochi on vacation?”
In a quick beat, Patrick Sandusy, the USOC public relations officer who is paid to deflect reporters' tricky questions, jumped in and blurted: “We're all coming back to the Paralympic Games next month. So that's the answer.”
But he never gave Blackmun and Chu a chance to answer. And they never interrupted him to give their answers. Which I think tells you the true answer. It sort of sums up the final Sochi verdict for me:
Sochi has been a great place for the Winter Olympics to live for a few weeks. But you wouldn't want to visit here.
I mean, believe it or not, the Olympic-related construction still — still — is being completed. On Day Five of the Games, concrete was being poured at my hotel complex. Landscaping was being installed on Day Seven. A manhole cover near my building remains open. Fences draped with bright Olympic banners still mask partially built structures or vacant lots with rocky mud.
Did this ruin the Games? No. It just made them slightly annoying and less aesthetically appealing. But the biggest problems occurred outside the actual Olympic competition areas. The Russians put their priorities in the right place.
First priority was to get the venues done in time. That happened. Several are awesome to behold, especially the mountain venues for ski jumping and the sliding events.
Second priority was the “Ring Of Steel” security plan. It involved tens of thousands of police and soldiers, plus massive numbers of magnetometers and scanners, plus a rather creepy large overhead remote camera that danced on wires above Olympic Park.
Third priority was the Athletes' Village, which received rave reviews. It was located on the shores of the Black Sea, which has rocky “beaches” rather than sandy beaches but had great views and was convenient to the competition venues.
Fourth priority was the transportation network, which was better than any in the 12 previous Olympic Games I've covered. Trains were efficient. Buses ran on time. Drivers were professional. When too many people showed up for one bus, another was immediately summoned.
The fifth priority was everything else. That included 20,000 new hotel rooms and other visitors' accommodations. And that was the genesis of so many complaints and griping.
Once the Games began, however, most of that was forgotten, washed away by the usual array of stunning performances, especially in the mountains where groovy snowboarders such as the USA gold medal slopestyle winner Sage Kotsenburg dropped lots of jaws. Figure skaters twizzled. Ski jumpers jumped, including women for the first time.
Dimitry Kozak, the Russian deputy prime minister and president Vladimir Putin's right hand man, appeared at the Olympic media center one day and joyously proclaimed: “The Games have turned our country, its culture and the people into something that is a lot closer and more appealing and understandable for the rest of the world.”
The master plan did indeed go well for the first week and a half of the Games — in spite of that nasty little “gay propaganda” law and other alleged suppression of free speech.
Russians were winning gold. Every Olympic event was officially a sellout with a million-plus tickets sold.
And then came last Wednesday, when the master plan took a dark left turn. The Pussy Riot incident with the Cossack whip occurred by the Sochi waterfront. A transgender Italian politician was detained by police for carrying a Gay Pride flag near an Olympic site. The Russian hockey team suffered an embarrassing loss to Finland. And a Russian figure skating heroine, 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya, fell in her short program, dashing her medal chances.
Russian athletes eventually rallied. But the human-rights issues lingered — and Kozak declined to talk about the Pussy Riot situation even when pressed by reporters.
“Any attempt to provoke us into discussing any other questions or problems will be relegated to the back seat,” Kozak replied stiffly.
So there you go. Russia has shown it can stage an Olympics well. But that part about being “more appealing and understandable?” Not so much.
It's been a fascinating three weeks. But that's long enough. Outside my hotel, the “lawn” was total mud when I arrived. Now, under the seaside sun, blades of grass are starting to poke up through the mud. It makes me wonder what this whole place will look like in a few years.
But no, I won't be taking a vacation here. With or without sunscreen.