SOCHI, Russia — As much of the United States digs out of a messy freeze, the weather in this Winter Olympics host city has been downright subtropical. Temperatures reached the mid-60s on Friday, so visitors and locals ditched their jackets and sprawled out on the newly planted sod to soak up some rays.
The fans (and even the ever-cynical media) also seem to be shedding fears and complaints, accepting this not-quite-ready city for what it is, and getting into a more festive mood as the Games enter their second week.
The remote location, concerns over terrorism, hassles with security, a visa requirement for foreign travelers, high-priced accommodations, long ticket lines and early reports of shoddy infrastructure scared away many spectators.
Gordon Ernst, a Swiss fan and veteran of eight Winter Games, is among those who decided to come. The burly man with the bushy white beard roamed around Olympic Park on Friday wearing a floppy black hat covered in Olympic pins and waving an enormous Swiss flag. He would have been carrying his family’s 100-year-old giant cowbell, but the security guards wouldn’t let him bring it in.
“I have been to eight Winter Games, my first in Lake Placid, and I have never been hassled about my bell,” said Ernst. “All of this security and inconvenience makes it more difficult for fans, so they just choose not to come. Things have been more serious here.”
Security is so tight that all spectators — even those who just want to enter the park and don’t have event tickets — are required to apply for a Spectator Pass, which includes a photo and must be worn around their necks at all times.
Another Swiss visitor, Brigitte Spring, said: “The media was so bad leading into these Olympics and that’s a shame, because a lot of those reporters had never even been here. Those reports scared people back home and they were afraid to come. I have found the Russians very nice and helpful.”
Crowds were leaner and more subdued than usual the first several days of these Olympics, particularly outside the venues. The oceanfront downtown promenade, expected to be bustling with visitors, was virtually dead.
The vast Olympic Park was hardly party-central, even though it houses six state-of-the-art arenas, the towering cauldron, the Bosco (Russia’s Nike) souvenir Super Store and several stages with live musical acts. An adjacent $371 million amusement park with roller coasters and a castle is unfinished and has yet to open.
Meanwhile, up in Gorki Plaza near the mountain venues, a D.J. pumped loud techno music into a deserted square while street entertainers in Hello Kitty, Spiderman, Snow White and rooster costumes tried desperately to dance with anybody who dared glance in their direction. A mime making balloon animals had no takers.
Gorki Village, clearly meant to be a shopping and dining destination, resembles a ghost town, as the newly constructed storefronts are about 80 percent vacant with “Coming Soon” signs on the windows and workers installing wiring and plumbing round the clock.
The scene here has been a far cry from the tens of thousands of partying fans who jammed the streets of Vancouver and Whistler in 2010, and the festive scene all over London during the 2012 Summer Games. Even a tiny, frigid place like Lillehammer, Norway, had much more ambiance and joy during the 1994 Winter Olympics.
But the Russian men’s hockey team won its first game Thursday night, a crowd of 106,000 poured into Olympic Park that day, and by Friday morning ticket sales had topped 1 million, according to organizers. Crowds seemed to be growing at Olympic Park again Friday night, though the vast majority are Russian fans.
There is a smattering of Swiss, Norwegians, Canadians, and Swedes, but hardly any Americans. CoSport, the official Olympic ticket distributor in the United States, reportedly sold 17,000 tickets for Sochi, which is lower than usual. Even the Dutch fans, who typically energize speedskating venues with their huge orange cheering section and oompah-loompah band, are here in smaller numbers than usual. Nevertheless, the fans who did show up are starting to have fun.
They posed for photos in front of the Olympic rings and cauldron. They danced to American and British pop tunes. They snacked on pirozhki – Russian empanada-like buns filled with meat, mashed potatoes or sauteed cabbage. And they waited in line for more than an hour to enter the souvenir store, where hot sellers included Olympic-themed nesting dolls and rainbow-fingered gloves.
Sochi Olympic chief Dmitry Chernyshenko said Friday: “We are quite happy with the atmosphere in the venues. Talking about the Olympic Park where the people are gathering (for medal ceremonies), we are having every night 20,000 spectators celebrating together with the athletes. The Park, by the way, has been visited so far by more than half a million visitors and the atmosphere is electric there.”
Gilbert Felli, the IOC’s executive director of the Games, heaped praise on the quality of the venues, the on-time transportation, and added: “Everybody was probably surprised with the atmosphere. The spectators were at the venues; there were some question marks, maybe, before the Games: Will there be spectators? Will there be a good atmosphere? The athletes are very happy to see that it is a great atmosphere for them in the stadium.”
Jeff Wells, a minister from St. Louis, is attending his eighth Olympics. He has been to four Summer Games and four Winter Games. He wore an American flag in his belt loop as he walked around Olympic Park Friday with fellow minister Doug Compton of Paragould, Ark. He attended short-track speedskating, women’s freestyle skiing and women’s downhill. Although the crowds haven’t been as big as he’s seen in other Olympics, he said he is glad he came.
“My family was worried, all the terrorism and the threats and all that, but I’m a Christian, I believe God’s in control, so I’m not worried,” he said. “I am meeting great people. I feel very safe. Security has been very adequate without being burdensome. I like the lay out of the park, and you can’t beat this weather. The Russians have been very friendly. They see our flag and want pictures with us. This is what the Olympics is all about.”