Friday, March 28, 2014

Sarah Goes to Sochi

My name is Sarah Hughes. I am a fourth year student at the University of Georgia studying international affairs. I work as a student research assistant at the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies. Thanks to a series of fortunate events and a family connection, I was afforded the opportunity to work as an intern for NBC at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. I spent six weeks there from early January to late February. During my time there and upon my return, I’ve been asked a lot about my feelings on the safety and security at the Games. So I’ve compiled some of my thoughts on the matter, and hopefully I’ve painted a clearer picture of Sochi for those who are reading this.

I’m not sure what I expected. When I got to Sochi, my bags were missing and there were very few people around who spoke enough English to help me. In those first couple of days, I thought my American stereotype of Russia had been right all along. The cab driver that took us to the grocery store disappeared, the hotel reception couldn’t understand me, and there was a police station right next to my hotel, reminding me that we were being watched all the time (a la USSR). But I couldn’t have been more wrong about my first impression of Russia and its people.  The longer I was there, the safer and more at home I felt. To be fair, working for NBC meant that I spent 95% of my time in the “media bubble,” so to speak. I left my media hotel in the morning, got on a media transport bus that took me to the International Broadcast Center, and then took a media bus back to my media hotel at night. We went through airport-style security to get into the broadcast center, and only official media personnel had access. It’s hard to feel unsafe when you’re receiving an intimate pat-down on a daily basis. We had to show our credentials to get into our hotel, so the only non-media people there were the hotel’s employees. The International Broadcast Center had a bank, laundry service, post office, gym, hair and nail salon, pharmacy, souvenir shop, snack store, and even a McDonald’s. So there really wasn’t much reason to venture into the outside world.

 On the off chance that I did need to run an errand outside of the bubble, an NBC driver took me where I needed to go, and a Russian intern (often my roommate) would accompany me to translate. And generally speaking, I found that the Russian people went out of their way to help me, despite the language barrier. More than once, local shop owners and vendors expressed huge excitement to my translating friend about having an American in their establishment. Although Sochi is a resort town, more Russians vacation there than foreigners, so it was a thrill for them to see new faces and nationalities around town.

While I’m on the subject of Sochi, I should mention that Olympic park and the media centers were about 40 minutes by car from the city of Sochi. We were actually located in a place called Adler, which is a smaller town in the larger area (like a county) known as Sochi. The small, secluded nature of Adler made everything feel a little safer, maybe because things moved at a slower pace and therefore it seemed like it would be hard for security to miss something. I only went to the city of Sochi once on a work errand. I only went outside the media bubble into Adler a handful of times. The only times I saw or read anything about the “danger” around me were when I was tuned into an American news source. American media was scarier than my Russian surroundings. I would say the same thing about accommodations: the worst things that I saw were either online or on the U.S. news. Other than a few minor things (things I’ve experienced in American hotels as well), my living situation was nothing but pleasant. They even built a couple of quaint bars and restaurants in our hotel complex.

To be honest, I have no idea what the spectator experience was like in Sochi. They stayed in different hotels, used different transportation, and had different credentials (all spectators did have to be accredited). So it’s possible that some of them felt less secure or saw more of a threat than I did. But when I got to go to events, the crowds were always engaged and lively – hardly scared for their lives.
Of course, there is always the feeling at a large event that something bad could happen. In the end, though, I think most working people were too busy during the Games to remember that. And then all of a sudden, the Closing Ceremony was over, and everything was intact. Now even the Paralympic Games are over with no major issues to speak of. Sochi 2014 exists only in our memories forevermore, and I for one will remember it fondly. The Russian people were gracious hosts, and they deserve all of the credit for such a successful Olympic Winter Games. Given the chance, I’d do it all again (even losing my luggage – telling that story is much more fun than clean clothes).

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