Russia warms up for Sochi Olympics on the track
Bus drivers ferrying the athletes and fans got lost. Spectators
trudged their way to the stadium on a crude path through the trees.
Controversy over Russia’s anti-gay law flared.
The nine-day athletics world championships, which end Sunday,
have had more than a few rough spots.
As the biggest international sports event that post-Soviet
Russia has hosted, the gathering of nearly 2,000 track and field
athletes has been watched as an informal indicator of how well
Russia will do in six months as host of the Winter Olympics in the
resort area of Sochi.
Comparing one event to the other may be like assessing whether a
shot-putter can do a triple axel, but clearly there are lessons to
Athletes spoke highly of the competition organization and
facilities. It’s off the track that troubles appeared.
The most vivid problem also may be the most intractable.
Russia’s recent passage of a law banning dissemination of pro-gay
”propaganda” to minors has sparked widespread criticism in the
West, including calls to boycott the Sochi Olympics. While athletes
at the worlds mostly tried to keep the issue at arm’s length –
saying they were too focused on competing or that politics and
sport don’t mix – a small, quiet gesture brought the matter center
Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro posted a photo of her
fingernails painted in the colors of the rainbow emblem of the gay
pride movement on the Internet, saying she did it to support
tolerance. It was the first overt sign among the athletes in Moscow
of objection to the Russian law.
Hours later, Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva said the
Swede’s move was disrespectful to Russia, adding that she supported
the law and that Russians are ”normal, standard people.” American
runner Nick Symmonds then piled on – despite an earlier vow to hold
his tongue while in Moscow – denouncing Russia for its
Isinbayeva tried to backpedal on Friday, saying her remarks were
misunderstood because she had been speaking in English rather than
Russian. But it left the sense that the woman who is an
international star for her exuberant performances had tainted the
gold she won Tuesday. While the issue has receded for the time
being, its volatility is clear and likely to persist.
Hoping Russia will repeal the law is more than a long shot.
Parliament passed it by a vote of 436-0, and a respected polling
agency found 76 percent of the population supports it. Some Russian
officials have suggested the law would not be enforced during the
Olympics, but the legality of that is questionable. In any case, it
would either be a tacit admission that the law is wrong or an
uncharacteristic show of submissiveness to Western pressure.
Other problems should be easier, in theory, to address – such as
making sure bus drivers have maps.
”The driver didn’t know where he was going and took us for a
trip around Moscow,” New Zealand runner Zane Robertson said about
his three-hour trip from the airport to the hotel, a distance of
about 35 kilometers (20 miles). ”We were frustrated. We were
almost pounding the seats. It took longer than it did to fly here
Shuttles between some official competition hotels and Luzhniki
Stadium often took up to 90 minutes due to wandering drivers.
Moscow’s famously efficient subway system was a faster
alternative, but foreign users complained that confusion sets in
once off the trains because of a lack of directions.
”There’s not much signage,” said spectator Roger Cross of
Southampton, England, adding that walking from the nearest subway
station required a detour on a path where ”there are tree roots
Transport will also be a key issue for the Sochi Games. The
light-rail link between the two venue clusters hasn’t yet opened
for visitors, so their ease of use isn’t clear.
Security will be a top concern in Sochi, too. The worlds showed
Russian police working efficiently, though sometimes
Mark Takada of Calgary, Canada, said he was taken aback one
night when the competition was over and police swept through the
”fan zone” adjacent to the stadium where spectators were
listening to music.
”People were dancing, it was fun. Then the police came,”
Takada said. ”They shut it right down.”
Kevin Barnett of Newport Beach, California, was inclined to be
forgiving of low-level irritations.
”Look, it’s the former Soviet Union,” Barnett said. ”You
can’t complain too much.”