KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — "What's the score?" asks Svetlana Fedorenko as she enters a bathhouse in the Caucasus Mountains with her husband and friends: The U.S.-Russia hockey game was on, and most of the country was glued to a television.
A few miles away from the ski slopes of Krasnaya Polyana, where athletes are competing for Olympic medals, an outdoor bathhouse called British Banya is attracting visitors.
Russians feel so strongly about the banya, a ritual of sweating it all out in a steam room and whipping each other with bunches of leafy branches, that even a crucial game between the old rivals can't stand in the way of this weekend tradition.
Bathhouse master Ivan Tkach starts his preparations late in the afternoon, at least three hours before the bathing party arrives. He chops the wood, heats up the stove in one room, builds a fire for the Native American sweat lodge, and ignites the blaze beneath a Japanese hot tub, which swings on chains from wooden poles.
"The most important thing about the banya is to have a good spirit in the body," Tkach explains. "When people come to the bathhouse, it is not only about warming up the body, but more importantly about relaxing, getting the toxins out of the body, and, psychologically, leaving the worries behind."
The banya is an institution in Russia. It's a place where businessmen deals have been struck and romantic comedies have been set. Russians even have a special greeting for each other as they emerge: "Happy light steam!"
The bathhouse traditions go way back. One of the earliest and most vivid mentions of the banya in Russia chronicles Princess Olga in the late 10th century avenging her husband's death by inviting his killer's emissaries to have a bath in Kiev. She then set fire to the bathhouse while they were enjoying themselves inside.
Russian bathhouse owners are more welcoming these days. Tatyana Larkin has been running the British Banya for seven years since moving from Moscow to start a business of her own. The 46-year-old entrepreneur says she's been a fan of the banya for so long that "when I faced the choice of what to do next, I didn't have that many options."
Larkin says Krasnaya Polyana is the ideal place for a bathhouse.
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