From high excitement, athletes descend into reality of Sochi

McClatchy Washington BureauFebruary 5, 2014 

— Down at the Vladimir Putin’s besieged dream of greatness, angry reporters can’t get into their hotel rooms and stray dogs are being rounded up for “health checks,” but at Istanbul’s international gateway across the Black Sea, #Sochi14 Olympians look ready to go.

They await the 12:20 a.m. Turkish Airlines flight wearing matching athletic gear and looking very, very fit: A group of men in bright blue Bosnia-Herzegovina jumpsuits.

Spain, decked out in bright scarlet and gold; you can’t miss them. Team Canada. Norway. Even those passengers without uniforms carry Olympic stature. That trio of 6-foot-tall women pulling rolly-bags? Skiers, maybe. Not figure skaters, anyhow.

Aboard Flight TK295, the seat belt sign goes off and passengers are laughing, wandering the aisle, greeting one another with hugs. They are clearly excited to be here. It’s strange to think that in a few days, we and the rest of NBC’s viewers will see these faces encased in helmets or painted in heavy, long-form-program makeup. For now, they look like college students on holiday.

There’s an incredibly tall woman a few rows ahead of me – she can practically fit her head into the overhead bin. Wait, she’s actually kind of short. She’s standing on a seat. Maybe she’s a figure skater.

The flight attendants serve a healthy 2 a.m. meal -- fruit cup with kiwi and grapefruit, a plate of cheeses, tomatoes, olives, a slice of turkey. Healthy. I wonder, should that young woman across the aisle be drinking Coke? Is that good for her training?

Spectators have come aboard too. A Canadian traveling with his wife and young daughter says this is his third Olympics. He has tickets to 13 events, including short-form speed skating and ice hockey, natch.

The Sochi airport is tiny, just two small carousels, at least in this terminal. And how long does it take the Russians to ferry the luggage from the plane’s belly into the building? More than an hour. We stand around, restless. It is 4:30 a.m. Then 5:30 a.m.

The bags, when they arrive, are huge, crammed, surely, with all kinds of athletic gear. They’re stamped with team names and flags. Some guys pile onto their cart long, thin, hook-shaped sacks. Hockey sticks, I’m guessing. The athletes jostle for space and pluck up their belongings. The Bosnia-Herzegovina guys are waiting a long time.

Ah, but here’s a figure skater, European champion Javier Fernandez in his “Espana” jacket, eyeing the revolving belt. “Dos,” he tells his colleagues. “Aqui.” He leans through the crowd and hefts two red-and-gold boulders of baggage that probably weigh more than he does and heaves them onto a waiting cart.

Some bags go unclaimed. A hulking duffel embroidered “Finnish Biathlon” makes round after round. Where is its owner?

I will not stay to find out. I drag my gear outside, toward my own work-in-progress media hotel room. The athletes board their buses. They motor away in the darkness, passing under a sign, a message from President Putin to the gathering competitors: “Welcome! We wish you great victories!”

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