Yes, even in Sochi, Games inspire

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SOCHI, Russia -- The 1980 Miracle on Ice is generally considered America's greatest moment in sports. The game pitted the world's two superpowers against each other at a time when Cold War tensions were extremely high. Just before the Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., started, President Jimmy Carter announced that the U.S. would boycott the Olympics in Moscow later that summer unless the Soviet Union pulled out from its recent invasion of Afghanistan.

Who at that time could imagine how different the world would be 34 years later when the United States finally competed in an Olympics in Russia?

That Russia would be Russia, not the Soviet Union? That our troops, not theirs, would be in Afghanistan?

That a Winter Olympics in Russia would be held in a city so warm that midway through the Games women were sunbathing in bikinis on the beach while dolphins frolicked in the water?

That an American snowboarder from Washington would win two gold medals for Russia because that country provided him with much better funding than the United States?

For that matter, who could imagine that snowboarding would be a sport?

The Cold War ended nearly a quarter-century ago, yet those times still hold tight in the American psyche. Old perceptions of Russia remain so firmly rooted that media and politicians constantly heightened fear of danger and terror, as if mass shootings in schools, malls, theaters and coffee shops are not a tragically regular occurrence in the U.S.

For Americans, those perceptions added a layer of intrigue to these Games that was not present four years ago in Vancouver, where the major concern was generally how long the lines would be for Tim Hortons donuts. Prior to these Games, we wondered: What would the Olympics be like in mysterious, former Communist Russia?

Well, they generally were like most Olympics held anywhere.

Despite widespread concerns, security was both tight and refreshingly unobtrusive. Once inside the Olympic ring, security clearance was quicker and smoother than at any U.S. airport. Transportation was the most dependable and frequent of any of the 11 Olympics I've covered. Despite all the tweets and blogs, housing was also better than usual. The Russian workers and volunteers were helpful and friendly. They deserve a gold medal and a big spasiba (and probably a raise).

There was, however, a distressing lack of winter atmosphere. That's not unexpected when the host city has a subtropical climate, doesn't actually hold any events -- Adler, not Sochi, was the site of all non-mountain competitions -- and builds virtually everything from scratch at a cost of more than $50 billion. The mountain cluster had a Potemkin village feel, what with the facades of new buildings that often held no businesses or few customers (though there was a line at the Cinnabon at a Gorki mall).

While that was disappointing, the athletes and competitions are the most important parts of each Olympics, and Sochi did not disappoint there.

Bode Miller became the oldest alpine medalist at 36, Mikaela Shiffrin was the youngest slalom champ at age 18, and the women's downhill ended in the first tie for gold in Olympic alpine history.

"Hundredths of a second is always luck," Switzerland gold medalist Dominique Gisin said of determining a winner in such a close race. "But luck comes back once in your life. One time you're on one side, one time you're on the other. Maybe just once you're in the middle, like today."

Slovenia's Tina Maze also won gold in that downhill, one of the eight medals won by her small country. Slovenia also upset Slovakia 3-1 in men's hockey, prompting forward Anze Kopitar to say, "I hope they're not going to mix us up with Slovakia anymore."

Hey, it gets confusing keeping track of all the countries and just who is competing for them these days. In addition to snowboarder Vic Wild, South Korean gold medalist Viktor Ahn also competed for Russia. Many other passport Olympians competed for countries in which they or their parents might have been born but in which they haven't resided for years or decades. Halfpipe skier Peter Crook competed for the British Virgin Islands even though he hadn't lived there since moving to Wisconsin in 2001.

"My dad and I had to set up the British Virgin Islands' ski association. We pretty much are the ski association," Crook said. "When we first went to the BVI Olympic Committee, they thought I was talking about water skiing."

The old reliables were well represented, though. The Dutch -- and their ever-vocal, orange-clad fans -- dominated in speedskating, winning 23 medals, including five by Ireen Wust, who has eight in her career. Such was the Dutch success and the American disappointment (zero medals) that U.S. coach Kip Carpenter told reporters at the team pursuit, "The good thing about the team pursuit is that all the Dutch skaters are in one team, so they can only win one medal."

Russian figure skaters dazzled the home fans, winning gold in the pairs, women and new team competition. The team event was attended by Russia President Vladimir Putin, who surprised the U.S. skaters by stopping to congratulate them on their bronze medal.

"I think if President Obama tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around, it would be a shock," said American pairs skater Simon Shnapir, who was born in Moscow but moved to Boston as a young child.

The Russians, however, did not fare so well on the other ice rink. In a pseudo but decidedly lesser rematch of the 1980 game, Russia's millionaire NHL and KHL hockey players lost to our millionaire NHL players 3-2 in an overtime shootout that had more Americans tweeting about T.J. Oshie than about what they had for breakfast that morning.

Asked what a hockey gold medal would mean for Russia, Alex Ovechkin said, "It means gold costs only $50 billion."

Or maybe more. Despite the billions Russia invested in these Games, it did not win gold in the event it most wanted. Worse, the hockey team didn't even make it past the quarterfinals. (The gold medal was won again by Canada.) Told that his coaching predecessor had been eaten alive by the media after a poor performance in Vancouver, Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said, "Well then, eat me alive right now. Eat me and I won't be here anymore."

That might have been the best quote of these Games, but perhaps the most stirring moment of these Olympics was in the women's biathlon relay Friday.

Ukraine, a former Soviet Republic, is undergoing a crisis in the capital of Kiev, where scores were killed this week while protesting the government's leanings toward Russia rather than the European Union. In the same week snipers shot protestors in Kiev, a team of biathletes shot expertly at targets in Sochi and skied its way to an unexpected gold medal.

It was Ukraine's first winter gold medal since parentless 16-year-old Oksana Baiul beat Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding at the 1994 Olympics and won the country's first Olympic gold. During the postrace news conference, the biathletes wore black arm bands (against IOC rules) and called for a moment of silence for those killed back home in Kiev.

Ukraine Olympic Committee president and former Soviet gold medalist pole vaulter Sergey Bubka watched and listened with tears in his eyes.

"This is a message for a better future," Bubka said. "What can be a better message for the people? We need this moment."

We all do. We need those moments to remind us that while terrible things can happen everywhere, wonderfully inspiring things always happen at the Olympics, whatever our fears, wherever they are held.

Speaking of which, Kiev is one of the finalists to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Start hyperventilating now.

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