What you could have learned about the US-Russian relationship by spending one month inside the Sochi Olympic bubble.

Sochi 2014 Closing Ceremony. Photo: flickr

For nearly a month, I lived inside the Sochi Olympic bubble. NBC may have streamed every moment of every Winter Olympics event as part of its billion-dollar broadcast deal, but I did not watch any of it. Instead, my impressions of Sochi primarily came via interactions with guests visiting the Olympic Park as well as conversations with the Sochi 2014 volunteers working at both the Coastal and Mountain Clusters.

Throughout the day, big-screen TVs showed action from around Sochi, while smaller screens at dining halls and cafes carried live Russian TV coverage of the Games.

As a result, I knew when Team Russia snagged its final three medals of the Olympics when my airplane en route from Sochi to Moscow exploded in wild applause as soon as we landed at Sheremetyevo Airport.

Likewise, I knew when Team Russia failed in its quest for Olympic hockey gold when my high-speed train to the Mountain Cluster went ghostly silent and the passengers next to me kept hitting the refresh buttons on their smartphone browsers, certain that the final score against Finland had been a cruel mistake.

I could tell which countries were doing well in the overall medals count by the profusion of hats, pins, flags and outrageous outfits that appeared the same day in Sochi’s Olympic Park. As long as the Dutch speed skaters piled up medals on a daily basis, it was a safe bet that you would see orange everywhere you walked in the Olympic Park.

Overall, I attended nearly twenty sporting events at every single one of Sochi’s new competition venues, with the exception of the new Sanki sliding center where both American and Russian athletes catapulted themselves down the mountain at record-setting speeds.

I also saw the Opening Ceremony at Fisht Olympic Stadium and visited every single one of the sponsor pavilions in Sochi’s World Fair-style Olympic Park. This is what I learned living inside Sochi’s Olympic bubble.

The New Russia looks nothing like the Old Russia

This actually wasn’t my first time visiting Sochi. My most recent visit to Sochi had been in summer 2012, when I vacationed along the Black Sea in the center of Sochi at an old Soviet-era cement block hotel called the Zhemchuzhina (“The Pearl”). It was hard then to imagine how Olympic Sochi might look – people still commuted around the city in Soviet-era buses, hung out at faded-look sanatoriums, and clung to symbols of the Old Russia.

Walk 15 minutes from the main Sochi railway station, for example, and you’d run smack dab into a huge mosaic of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. In the mountains in 2012, there were dusty roads filled with posters for new ski resorts and ski condos, but nothing exactly to see. That new high-speed train line connecting the Mountain and Coastal Clusters? It hadn’t even been built yet.

Fast-forward 18 months, though, and the changes in Sochi were breathtaking. All of the competition venues were beautiful – especially the venues in the Olympic Park such as the Iceberg Skating Palace, the Bolshoi Ice Dome and Adler Arena when lit up at night.

There was a riotous explosion of color as soon as you passed over the Olympic Ring-themed passageway from the Olympic Park rail station into the Olympic Park, home of the Olympic Flame.

And that was echoed in the Mountain Cluster, where three world-class ski resorts had been cross-linked and connected with an array of roads, bridges and ski gondolas. At night, Rosa Khutor – Sochi’s largest ski resort area designed in the style of a Swiss Alps village – was absolutely beautiful, lit up in pastels and illuminated by fireworks every night.

And what was perhaps most remarkable of all was how the signs and symbols of the New Russia referenced the signs and symbols of the Old Russia. The new clocktower at the Rosa Khutor alpine village was designed to echo the architecture of the old Stalinist-era clocktower at the main railway station in the center of Sochi.

The Bolshoi Ice Dome, decorated with Olympic rings, evoked the famous Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. The ambitious new Gorky Gorod in the mountains was bigger and more expansive than the recently refurbished Gorky Park in Moscow, itself one of the few tourist attractions in Russia that Westerners might recognize by name.

Greater Sochi map. Infographics: Natalya Mikhaylenko

Buildings for guests and journalists were named for famous places in Moscow, like Alexandrovskii Sad (the garden next to the Kremlin) and Chistyie Prudyi (the “Clean Ponds” neighborhood in Moscow).

Conference rooms at the Main Media Center were named for the likes of Alexander Pushkin and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Even the name of Sochi’s large, meandering ski resort valley – Krasnaya Polyana (“Red Meadow”)  –  seemed to evoke the name of Russia’s most famous destination – Red Square. (And, for good measure, the central meeting place at Rosa Khutor where all the Olympic concerts took place was called “Rose Square.”)

Russia cannot be understood with the meme alone

Even though I was living inside an Olympic Bubble, it was impossible to ignore the social media memes that emerged during the Olympics – everything from #SochiProblems to the Sochi Selfie.

You heard the foreign journalists talking about these memes on the media buses that dropped them off at the competition venues around Sochi. However, talk to any Russian attending the Olympics in the Olympic Park, and you’d probably get a blank look if you mentioned a social media meme like #NightmareBear.

That “nightmare” bear was simply the lovable white polar bear Misha, the winter sports-loving cousin of Moscow’s famous brown bear mascot from the 1980s Summer Olympics. Misha sang and danced at the Olympic venues during breaks in the action, and posed for photos with children while walking around the Olympic Park. At the Closing Ceremony, Misha famously shed a tear for the closing of the Winter Olympics.

So, these social media memes were not always on point. There is a famous Russian poem by Fyodor Tyutchev that is often used to explain the inscrutability of Russia:

Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,

No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness:

She stands alone, unique –

In Russia, one can only believe.

More than 100 years later after Tyutchev wrote those lines, you can update that poem to read: “Russia cannot be understood by meme alone.” In Sochi, the memes that became popular in the West seemed to be self-fulfilling prophecies of journalists, who came to Russia with a specific image of the nation.

Sochi Closing Ceremony pokes fun at Olympic ring malfunction. Photo: RIA Novosti

Memes, shared via Facebook and Twitter, were meant to infect other visitors to the Olympics with certain stereotypes of Russia before the Games even began – that the nation was somehow incompetent and the people unfriendly.

By the end of the month, though, even the most cynical of the #SochiProblems promoters had to admit that Russia’s Olympic organizers were doing their best to improve things on a continual basis. Every day brought new stories of how Sochi’s volunteers and paid workers made everyday life easier and more convenient for guests to the Olympic city.

The USA has a Canada problem

It was striking at times at how muted the American presence in Sochi felt. At the competition arenas, it seemed like there were a few hardy American fans waving flags, but that was it.

You saw the NBC broadcast folks wearing their Nike-designed jackets, or maybe wearing some Team USA Olympic gear, but they were quiet and muted when traversing the Olympic Park. Maybe this had to do with the official warnings sent to Americans before the Games: Don’t wear your colors, don’t broadcast that you’re an American, don’t wear the stars-and-stripes too proudly.

The USA House in the Olympic Park was a “private home” and that meant that even American guests weren’t welcome unless they were friends and family of the athletes (or one of Team USA’s deep-pocketed sponsors). The one attempt I made to hang out at the USA House was greeted with suspicion – after showing my passport, I was allowed to do some Team USA shopping at a boutique featuring Nike and Ralph Lauren Polo, but not allowed into any of the non-commercial areas of the USA House.

USA House in the Olympic village. Photo: flickr

Now contrast that approach to the approach of the Canadians at the Games. They were everywhere you looked, draped in red and proudly bearing the Canadian symbol of the maple leaf.

At the women’s Olympic gold medal hockey game, in which Canada faced off against Team USA, muted chants of “U-S-A” were quickly eclipsed by chants of “Can-a-da.”

At times, 80% of the Bolshoi Ice Dome appeared to be pulling for the Canadians. Canadians approached you on the streets and at the venues, unafraid to show their pride in making the long journey from Canada to support their team.

On sunny days, the Canada House in the Olympic Park was filled with outdoor chairs and Canadians lounging around in the fresh air. Next door, the lawn of the Team USA house was empty, the doors closed, and protected by security guards.

Maybe this Olympic Park experience is just one sample in a huge population of events, but you can read this experience as part of a larger issue: The USA has a Canada problem. Whether because of ideology or some other factor, Russians can embrace Canada, but can’t embrace the USA.

Americans are on edge when they travel to Sochi, but Canadians aren’t. This seems to show up in the foreign policy calculus of Americans when it comes to Russia – they don’t trust Russia. Just like the Team USA house in the Olympic Park was sealed off from visitors, it now sometimes feels like the USA really doesn’t want to interact with the rest of the world, and especially not with Russia.

Americans don’t mind if Russians buy their Nike and Ralph Lauren Polo products abroad, but they don’t really want to take the time to learn and experience a new culture. And, as we saw in both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, Russia’s is a very rich culture indeed.

These were Russia’s Games as much as Putin’s Games

As Russia’s medal count soared throughout the Winter Games, making this Russia’s best-ever appearance in the Winter Olympics – even including all the powerhouse teams of the combined USSR teams – you could see the pride and Olympic spirit sweeping up Russia.

The first visitors to the Olympic Park walked around in disappointingly small groups, and there seemed to be few foreigners. People initially joked that this was an Olympics for the athletes and the 25,000 or so Sochi 2014 volunteers.

By the end, though, there was a mad rush to see the Olympic Park, if only for a day. Seats began to fill. Long lines stood outside the Bosco Olympic Store at all hours of the day and night.

Families came out in droves, clothed in official Russian Olympic gear. Cheers of “Rossiya” (“Russia”) emanated everywhere you went, and even the most hardened Russia critics admitted that somehow, despite all odds, Russia had built something special – a place where Russians actually smiled, where athletes set all-time Olympic records at world-class venues, and Russia actually had something worthy of being shared with friends and families that didn’t involve antagonizing the West.

Going into the Games, there had been a fear that these would be Putin’s Games, a place for Vladimir Putin to show off his version of Russia to the world. Yet, Putin seemed to have a soft touch at the Games  – he made one memorable appearance at the USA and Canada Houses at the Olympic Park, and he showed up for the USA-Russia hockey match and at the Iceberg Skating Palace.

You heard stories about him popping in to congratulate athletes who had won gold medals, but his image and presence was muted in Sochi. This was a national, shared experience, not an experience of one man or one group of officials.

The Closing Ceremony provided a final, satisfying coda to the end of the Games. For Russia, they turned out to be the most successful Winter Olympics in the nation’s history.

They helped to introduce a New Russia to the world. They shattered stereotypes about Russia that tried to appear in the form of persistent social media memes. And they might have just united a country that was at times skeptical and critical of the $50 billion spent to host the Winter Olympics.

All of this, of course, would have been impossible to learn if I hadn’t been living inside the Sochi Olympic Bubble.