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Through fog of complaints, Sochi's light shines

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 14, 2014 at 5:23 am •  Published: February 14, 2014
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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Unfinished hotels, packs of stray dogs with a price on their heads, warnings not to drink the strange-colored water. Westerners coming to Sochi for the Winter Olympics seemed surprised by all this. Their widely reported comments have been somewhere between sardonic and suffering, as if they'd ended up in a real-life Fawlty Towers.

But for a Westerner who's lived in Russia for 15 years, there's a flip-side surprise: Vivid problems aside, the Olympics and ancillary development show some promising signs for the country.

When the dead hand of communism that had weighed down Russia for seven decades was lifted in 1991, optimists believed the country would spring up and busily reconstitute itself along the lines of its European neighbors. Instead, Communism proved to be like an isotope with a long half-life, debilitating the country long after. Inefficiency, obstinacy and surliness lost their grip only gradually.

Viewed in that light, Sochi 2014 looks like progress. Many Russians, who long endured shabby Soviet construction and slow-moving workers, are heartened.

"We thought it would never be finished," says Vadimir Havartian, who lives on the edge of the coastal Olympic developments. But now, he says, "You can't recognize this place ... very pretty."

Some of Sochi's standouts:

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GOOD SPIRITS

The volunteer corps at the Olympics and staff at hotels have proved to be not just competent but friendly, even occasionally asking if someone needs help. In individual doses, it's a small thing; collectively, it's huge. Although Russians tend to be welcoming and generous in their homes, in public they are often dour and abrupt — if they even recognize your existence. Catching the attention of a store clerk can be a challenge, a smile on the sidewalk almost unseen.

Communism did much to discourage personal expression and contact with strangers, and it gave people little to smile about on the street. So the Sochi workers' friendliness indicates more than just good training; it suggests that they feel secure enough in their own lives to drop their protective shells and engage with the world. Although Sochi is just a minuscule corner of a gargantuan land, the volunteers will be taking their attitudes home and perhaps spreading the sunshine.

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GOOD ARCHITECTURE

The signature building of the Soviet Union was the giant dull tower block fronting on a blank expanse of land. After the Soviet collapse, Russia built even more of them, seemingly unable to adapt to the idea of aesthetic appeal and scaling buildings to not make humans feel like ants. Public buildings were mostly just as bad, only larger.

Much of the new construction in Sochi, however, is pleasant and even inspiring.

The speedskating arena could have been little more than a box, but it's elaborated with fairings that mimic the skaters' speed and intense leans into the curve. The main hockey rink reflects Russian's almost cultish devotion to the sport — a graceful elliptical dome sitting on a hillock, approached by a sweeping staircase like a temple. The figure skating arena, with its jolly facade of aqua and blue panels, is as light and decorative as the sport itself.

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