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Olympics gets mixed review


SOCHI, Russia — Great competition. Good Games. Sketchy surroundings. Atmosphere sometimes lacking.

The Sochi Olympics get a mixed report card.

On the plus side, the venues were excellent and the athletes seemed unanimous in their praise of everything from the food to their accommodations. In the Coastal Cluster, athletes enjoyed the ability to ride bikes or walk to the venues.

The crowds were largely enthusiastic, if not as global as in previous Games. Sochi is a hard place to get to, and daily story of security threats — proved unfounded — are hardly an incentive to book passage to the Black Sea.

The home fans did their best to take up the slack when Russia was at play, however.

Fans at the Ice Cube Curling Center were raucous when the Russian teams were in action, cheering any contact between rocks whether intended or not. At the Bolshoy Ice Dome, a wave of sound billowed around the stands whenever the Russians headed towards the opposition blue-line.

Other times, the atmosphere inside venues seem cool, almost neutral when Russia did not feature prominently in the competition. There were empty seats.

Venues aside, the Olympic Park proved to be a disappointment. It had all the atmosphere of a parking lot with few amenities.

Other than the opening and closing ceremonies — kudos for having the Moscow police choir sing Daft Punk — the Russian character failed to come through. Constant canned pop and rock music in the grounds gave these generic Games the feel of an oversized state fair rather than memorable sporting event.

The Sochi superstore, one place that many wanted to visit, was next to impossible to get into because of long lineups at all hours of the day. Memo to Rio de Janeiro organizers: take your superstore plans and double them.

Sochi also suffered in comparison to London, which offered a majestic, world-class backdrop to the Summer Games.

Part of the problem is that spectators are almost an afterthought, a necessary prop for the made-for-TV event the Olympics have become.

You can’t fit millions into Olympic Park so why bother filling it with anything interesting for spectators? Ski and snowboard slopestyle is a thrill a minute on TV but for the fans in the stands it’s craning your neck at a video screen until someone suddenly comes flying over the penultimate jump.

While the Games looked great on TV, there was occasional chaos behind the curtain.

Media accommodations were, let’s say, a work in progress. The Russians could have used a few thousand Mike Holmes ahead of time.

In some ways, the Games seemed unfinished well after they started. Although organizers did their best to eventually produce shower curtains, towels, toilet paper and light bulbs.

One got the sense that had the Games gone a week longer, everything would be humming nicely. On Day 22, for example, one of the breakfast buffet restaurants at the media village proudly put up a sign that it now provided coffee to go. Just in time for bleary-eyed reporters to get a cup of java to go for the flight home.

But at a Games where a can of beer cost less than a coffee at the main press centre, reporters were not short on liquids.

One major attraction at Olympic Park was the Olympic rings. Fans patiently waited their turn to have their picture taken underneath, like the everpresent queue in Sin City below the Welcome to Las Vegas sign.

The lineups were proof positive that the Olympic rings still wield power.

And the tears of joy of the Jones rink, followed hours later by agonizing tears from the U.S. women’s hockey team were powerful reminders of how much these athletes pour into their Olympic dream.

The additions of new X Games staple sports added sizzle to the Games, although one wonders at what cost to the body.

Definitely not for the faint of heart.

Canada’s curlers reminded us of the joy to be had away from competition at the Games.

Kirsten Wall, an alternate for Jennifer Jones rink, did not get to throw a rock in competition — although her skip tried to get her in for the end of the final round-robin game against South Korea, only to have the South Koreans shake hands before she could do it.

But at the team news conference after its gold medal win, Wall had nothing but good things to say about her Olympic experience, especially off-ice.

“I was able to get Sidney Crosby’s autograph which was pretty fun.” she said. “Yeah, it’s like Disney World for athletes. I got to meet Mickey Mouse, it’s pretty cool.”

Second Jill Officer and third Kaitlyn Lawes got to play mixed ping-pong doubles with Shea Weber, Patrice Bergeron and Sidney Crosby at the Canadian athletes’ lounge.

“Just meeting some of the hockey guys is kind of cool, they’re kind of put up I guess on a pedestal and we kind of get that feeling as well,” Officer said. “So to have a chance to chill out with them and play ping-pong was pretty sweet.”

Four years ago on home soil, Canada led with 14 gold medals and was third in the total standings with 26 medals (14-7-5).

The Canadian team did not quite match that here, finishing fourth with 25 (10-10-5).

The Netherlands finished with 24 medals — 23 in long-track speed skating and one from short-track speedskating.

The Sochi dishonour roll for doping numbered five: Austrian cross-country skier Johannes Duerr, Latvian hockey player Vitalijs Pavlovs, Ukrainian cross-country skier Marina Lisogor, German biathlete Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle and Italian bobsledder William Frullani.

There were many more athletes who did themselves and their countries proud.

The Canadian list is long, with the likes of Gilmore Junio, the Dufour-Lapointe sisters, Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse, Alex Bilodeau, Jones’ and Brad Jacobs’ curling rinks, and the entire women’s hockey team front and centre.

Canadian cross-country ski coach Justin Wadsworth showed the world the meaning of true sportsmanship when he ran onto the course to help a Russian skier who had fallen three times and broken a ski.

Kaya Turski didn’t win a medal in slopestyle ski but won a legion of fans for the classy way in which she reacted to crashing twice here, a painful end to a courageous comeback from yet another knee surgery.

The Canadian women’s hockey team got a nation off its couch, with a stirring comeback win over the U.S. that may be the signature sporting memory of the games for Canada. The men’s team won gold in less spectacular but more dominant fashion.

On the world stage, Finnish forward Teemu Selanne proved that you can win a medal (bronze) at the age of 43 years 234 days.

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, 40, took his record medal total to 13 with a gold in the biathlon mixed relay. Fellow Norwegian Marit Bjoergen won the 30-kilometre mass start cross-country ski event to become the most successful woman in Winter Games history with 10 medals: six gold, three silver and one bronze.

Italian luger Armin Zoeggeler became the first athlete to win a medal at six Winter Games after earning a bronze here.

Russian luger Albert Demchenko and Japanese ski jumper Noriaki Kasai both captured silver in their record seventh Winter Games.

And Ireen Wust won five of those 23 Dutch medals in speedskating.

Only 1,446 days until the opening ceremony of the games in Pyeongchang.

 
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