Like Sarah Palin, I consider Russia closer than it reallyis. I’ve taken two long skiing excursions there. In 2004, I experienced giant, 7,000-foot descents on the Pacific Rim volcanoes of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Earlier, I visited western Russia’s Caucasus Mountains. The highlight: summiting 18,500-foot Mount Elbrus, Europe’s tallest peak. The lowlights: steel-wool toilet paper, Moscow airport weasels withholding luggage until bribed, and the theft of my brand-new adjustable Black Diamond Whippet self-arrest poles.
So when the IOC awarded the 2014 Winter Games to Sochi, Russia, I was flabbergasted. Russia lacks any semblance of aesthetic sensibility. Even in beautiful mountains surrounded by pleasant open space, Russia forces its people to live in Soviet-era misery: hideous gray 10-story boxlike apartments. You want to know the most beautiful part of Moscow? Its ornate subway stations. Which lie underground, removed from the Chernobylesque vistas of nuclear reactors and gunmetal skies.
I don’t trust Russia to stage a play date, much less an Olympics. In Kamchatka, I saw shit you wouldn’t believe. On the broken-glass-littered street where we stayed, a greasy garage burned for two days. Once, at a roadside vodka stand, a guy carelessly reversing in a Datsun sideswiped our van. In L.A., this would be cause for gunplay. In Kamchatka, no one cared. Not even the cop who pulled in for a nip. So what if cars trade paint? In the Russian scheme of things, vodka procurement matters much more than unblemished quarter panels.
Still, I don’t think we should boycott Sochi, as we did Russia’s first attempt at the Olympics, the Summer Games of 1980. No, no, no. Boycotts cost Olympic skiers their dreams. Boycotts are stupid, ineffective, and every bit as lame as ski-pole thieves.
Besides, Vladimir Putin is an avid skier who’s staking his (vast) personal pride on pulling off a world-class Winter Games. For the joy of Mother Russia, Putin frequently stages photo ops of himself slaloming down Russian pistes. He will use every (infinite?) power at his disposal to ensure that those two weeks of February go off without a hitch. But from my experience, I’m guessing there will be at least one or two.
—Rob Story is Skiing’s columnist. Despite his feelings about the coming Olympics, he’ll likely be there, on some kind of free media junket, no less.