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An hour away, but a world away: Extreme sports and extreme fun up in the mountains
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — You know who really deserves a medal at these Games? The steel-spined drivers navigating hairpin, cliffside switchbacks in giant buses, schlepping wide-eyed scribes like me around in the Mountain Cluster.
Up here in the mountains, about an hour’s drive from the Coastal Cluster, it suddenly feels like a Winter Olympics — the palm trees replaced by towering firs, the Black Sea replaced by jagged snow-capped mountains. The main drag running through the region, past the Gorki and Rosa Khutor neighborhoods, is lined with charming hotels, bustling restaurants and lively bars. It looks like a ski town, like a Park City, like a Breckenridge, like an Aspen — like an Olympics.
It’s a far cry from the impressive but imposing Ring of Steel by the sea. Olympic Park is a sterile place, a labyrinthine system of 10-foot-tall fences and guard rails, asphalt and unsettled sod. The six venues built are gorgeous outside and in, but the setting is cold, even in the warm sun.
Even down in Sochi, the beauty comes not from the coast, but from the mountains looming large in the distance (but not too distant; veteran scribes are calling this one of the most compact and easily navigable Winter Games in memory). It looks pretty up there. It looks even prettier when you get there, the craggy peaks strung together with gondolas and colorful villas lining the main street.
And it looks (and is) a lot more fun, too.
The sports are crazier, the athletes are looser, the fans are wilder (and likely more well-lubricated, if my experience in ski towns is any indication). It would have been impossible not to have fun at the women’s slopestyle finals Sunday afternoon — amazing athletes performing amazing maneuvers in an amazing setting in amazingly mild temperatures (hardly any fans even bothered to wear gloves, unless they were bedazzled in their favorite nation’s colors).
Stodgy curmudgeons clinging to old-school ideas of what is and what isn’t a sport should take a look at Czech boarder Sarka Pancocohva, who wiped out so brutally after dropping 40 feet out of the air onto a steep hill during the slopestyle final that she cracked the back of her helmet when it struck the icy snow. After a scary moment, she got up and calmly boarded the rest of the way down. That’s hockey-player tough. Sure, there’s a smaller pool of athletes going for gold in some of these events than, say, track and field or swimming or basketball. But that’s because fewer people are daring enough to try.
Whether you were watching Jamie Anderson complete an American slopestyle sweep at the Extreme Park, catching the downhill at the nearby Alpine Center, getting whiplash trying to follow the lugers at the Sanki Sliding Center, admiring the endurance of the skiathlon competitors at the Laura Center, or gawking at the flying ski jumpers at the RusSki Center, you couldn’t help but shake your head in wonder.
The athletes are as awe-inspiring as the setting. Look, hockey’s great. And for my money, the Olympic men’s hockey tournament is the best sporting event in the world. But when was the last time you saw a 4-foot-11 woman on 9-foot-long skis go 90 mph and fly the length of a football field? It’s somehow less impressive than you’ve probably imagined — despite what it looks like on TV, they’re never more than about 10 feet off the ground — yet it’s still the craziest damn thing you’ve ever seen. How cool is that?
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good time down in the Coastal Cluster, too — in the arenas. Dutch speedskating fans are insane — in a great way. The Finnish women’s hockey fans had a grand old time even in a 3-1 loss to the U.S. Curling crowds can get crazier than you’d expect. And I fully expect that the men’s hockey games involving Russia are going to be among the loudest and wildest I’ll ever witness.
But once you leave the venue, it’s parking lots and bus queues and fences, and if you want to have a good time, you have to take a cab, or take a train, or take a hike.
In the mountains? All you have to do is walk around. Or bar-crawl around. Or, hell, just look around. Up here, at the top of Vladimir Putin’s $9-billion highway to heaven, that’s all it takes to bring a smile to your face.