Flying above the Baltic Ocean to Russia, thoughts of the 1980 Moscow Olympics come to mind. From history’s prism, the American led boycott of 1980 Olympics hardly registers. Our athletes were political weapons in 1980; Russia returned the favor four years later at the LA Games. And Afghanistan? It would be nine more years before the tanks would retreat. Better for us to battle with bikes and javelins, or skis. â€œThe ancient Greeks believed the Olympic arena so sacred they stopped their wars for them,â€ said Olympic coach Bill Bowerman. â€œNow we believe our wars are so sacred we sacrifice Olympics for them.â€
Unlike the athletes who prepared for naught in 1980, to have a ticket and valid visa in hand, with skis in the cargo hold of the plane headed for a Russian odyssey — two days of travel, one day training, one day of racing — feels like a gift.
Our four day trip was memorable. It began inauspiciously with Roar Lillefjell, our Norwegian wax guru, being denied entry due to a visa issue. It continued on a 10-hour bus ride with an Italian World Cup team that outnumbers our four-person American ensemble of Andy Newell, Kikkan Randall, Pete Vordenberg, and me ten-to-one. The drive begins in Moscow mayhem. Stuck in bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-crawl traffic, a steady stream of cars begin a choose their own adventure style of driving, making a new lane through the muddy, mucky mess alongside the thoroughfare’s right-hand lane. Unbelievable.
Then there’s the scene inside the slow moving bus. Anytime you traveling with the Italians, you are privy to the Christian Zorzi show. First, the guy goes by Zorro, and at times sports the master swordsman’s visual motif, complete with cape and mask. Second, he is loud. His voice is a distinctive mix of Kermit the Frog meets the booming tenor of Luciano Pavarotti. Finally, he is constantly animated as only one of Italian blood and upbringing can be. To just translate his words would miss the full meaning of a Zorro dialogue because words alone do not contain all of the understanding going on between him and his conversational sparring partner.
After the city traffic, the window view alternates between the illusion of deserted uniformity and the nighttime city life of dark apartment buildings stretching to the sky, dimly lit streetlights, and road vendors selling stuffed animals and such under thousand watt halogen lighting systems. â€˜Welcome to Russia,’ I say to myself. â€˜This really is a different country.’
Eight hours later, my head meets pillow just after 2 a.m. It is a wonderful embrace. Another eight hours later, its time for a quick breakfast, then skiing. The dining hall is a swank, well-heeled, all wood building set beside the Volga River. Inside, Duke Ellington’s â€œIt Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)â€ plays. Individually lit painted pictures of race horses adorn the twelve-foot high walls. The atmosphere felt Russian high society, circa 1930.
Outside, it’s warm and pouring rain. A thin of ribbon of snow, hued various shades of white winds around the perimeter of a rolling field of green grass and brown mud. From my view one can only wonder what condition the course could be in. Within seconds of stride and gliding it is apparent this manmade ski surface is special. It’s not powder rounded up and trucked in from some snowy locale. It’s not made from a snow gun shooting a mixture of water and air into below freezing temperatures. For one thing, it’s about 45 degrees outside, with a wade through ankle deep mud and puddles required to get to the course. It hasn’t been cold in Rybinsk for days.
No, the 2 Â½ kilometer course wasn’t snow. It was ice. A layer of ice blocks broken up and fished out of a frozen lake, and then loaded into a truck and delivered to the race venue. There, Russian military lied down by a hand a cobblestone trail of ice twenty feet wide. Atop this ice cube sized crushed ice and slush completed the racing surface. Two entire Russian military platoons were given this detail. And all their work, just sitting there, melting away. The only reason the traveling World Cup show went down in Russia came down to moxie and serious back breaking work on the part of the race organizers. Mother Russia, my hat is off to you.
My teammates Andy, Kikkan and I finished training ten minutes before the women’s fifteen kilometer freestyle start. Heading to the stadium fans flood in by the busload. Men and women; young and old. Fifteen to twenty thousand of them, many carrying flags or horns or other handheld sound making devices. All are drinking or singing. Many do both. All are dressed up. The men in dark wool slacks, black jackets and fur hats. The women in everything from vintage dresses with matching sunhats and umbrellas from a bygone era to knee-length high heel boots and fox fur jackets. Sorry Italy. Here’s a society more into fashion than you. And that’s saying something.
Later that night, after having prepared eighteen pairs of skis – six for each racer – then sitting through a race meeting, we meet up with our coach. â€œWhat’s the crowd like?â€ I ask. â€œYou will feel like a gladiator in battle,â€ was Pete’s reply. An accurate description. I do not have words to better explain it. The crowd’s volume and urgency were of non-compare.
I’ve always had the impression of Russia as a kind of dour and expressionless society. Of rules, regulations, borscht, and vodka. These were great sports fans, who appreciated, and called for top performances. To the Russian crowds that got to the races early and stayed late, and showed big support for everyone competing, many thanks. We left with a higher regard for Russia and Rybinsk.