The 55-year-old German prince representing his birth country Mexico at Sochi already stands out for being one of the oldest male competitors, but his mariachi-themed speed-suit may make him stand out even more. Off the slopes, he is a photographer and pop musician who has recorded albums like Shopping Bags & Religion, which features tracks called “While the Pope is Sleeping” and “Values Bye Bye.”
Raised in Rockville, Maryland, the 24-year-old forward for the Swiss women’s hockey team boasts dual citizenship because of her father’s nationality. While preparing for Sochi, the University of Connecticut graduate worked as a barista at Coffee Bar, a Washington, D.C., coffee shop, in the mornings and trained in the afternoons, NPR reports. Recently her fellow baristas crafted a latte illustrating the five Olympic rings in her honor.
Born in Singapore and raised in Britain, the 35-year-old violin prodigy known as “Vanessa-Mae” on stage will represent Thailand using her Thai father’s surname “Vanakorn.” Known for fusing classical music with pop and techno, she landed one of the top spots on the U.K. albums charts with her breakout album The Violin Player (1995), and People listed her as one of the “50 Most Beautiful People in the World.” “When it comes to music I am a perfectionist but when it is skiing, I have no delusions about a podium or even being in the top 100 in the world,” she told Reuters. “Living my dream of being a ski bum is great but the best job in the world is being on stage, making music.”
The 30-year-old American bobsledder from Alpine, Utah, is also an Army Captain. Through the Army World Class Athlete Program, he competed in the 2010 Winter Olympics, then deployed to Iraq for a year. After Sochi, he is expected to report to Fort Huachuca in Arizona in May, he told the New York Times. “I love wearing the flag on both uniforms,” he says in a United States Olympic Committee video.
A Minnesota native, the 23-year-old lead on Team USA’s curling team is a civil engineer who started a job at Lake Superior Consulting in Duluth after graduating from the University of Minnesota-Duluth with a civil engineering degree. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, he works on energy pipeline projects and “typically hops on a plane every other Thursday night, curls over the weekend, and returns jet-lagged to his desk,” which he calls “a sanctuary.”
The 30-year-old vice-skip on Team USA’s curling team, the Minnesota native also teaches science at Eveleth-Gilbert Junior High School. “It’s never ending, so it’s been a very tiring year trying to do both,” he told Minnesota Public Radio.
The 32-year-old Australian aerial skier developed “Body Ice,” a line of ice packs, after injuring her knee during 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. She went on to win Gold and set a new Olympic record in aerial skiing at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.
The 32-year-old U.S. skeleton racer from Ewing, New Jersey, and fellow skeleton athlete Chris Nurre founded A Tiny Tribe, which makes apps for iOS devices like Moodboard, a tool that helps creative professionals organize their projects.
The 40-year-old Italian luger, who some consider the greatest in the sport’s history, is also a member of the Carabinieri, the country’s paramilitary police force.
The 39-year-old skip for Canada’s curling team is a lawyer for National Bank Financial and has been juggling the two passions throughout her career. In 2008, she told The Lawyers Weekly in Canada that she is glued to her laptop and smartphone in between competitions: “my team will usually go out for dinner but I’ll just order room service and work and that’s fine.”
The 28-year-old skip for Canada’s curling team is an account manager at RBC Royal Bank. He told The Toronto Sun that his co-workers have been very supportive, dressing in red and white, the colors of the Canadian flag.
To raise money for her competitions, the 28-year-old British snowboarder founded IsleofDeals.com, a website that offers daily deals in her hometown, the Isle of Man. She also runs ExpertHealth.me, which promotes a nutrition and exercise regime developed by Gillings and her coaches.
The 31-year-old three-time U.S. Olympian and ice hockey forward holds a psychology degree from Harvard College and worked as an assistant coach to the women’s ice hockey team at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. before resigning in March to train for Sochi.
Russia struggles to attract Olympic tourists to its newly completed alpine ski resort
It should have been the busiest day of the season. The weather was perfect. The snow at the Mountain Carousel, one of Russia’s newest skiing resorts, had been groomed like a Japanese sand garden. The slopes were kitted out with the best ski lifts money can buy. Thousands of foreign visitors had descended on the area two days earlier for the opening of the Winter Olympic Games in nearby Sochi, and on Sunday, while all the other resorts in the area were hosting Olympic events, the Mountain Carousel was the only ridge open to the general public. But the crowds never came.
“I don’t know what went wrong,” says Vladimir Drevyatnikov, a skiing instructor at the resort who was looking around for students at the top of the mountain on Sunday afternoon. “This was supposed to be our big debut.” More than that, it was supposed to help introduce the world to a new skiing destination, one that Russia hopes to rival the European Alps one day or, at the very least, prevent the pampered mountains near Sochi from becoming Olympic white elephants after the Games leave town.
That has been a central part of President Vladimir Putin’s grand, decadelong design for these Olympics and, more broadly, for the restive mountain range where they are being held. The North Caucasus, a strip of highlands on Russia’s southern edge, is by far the most volatile part of the country, home to an active Islamist insurgency that wants to break the region off into an independent state. No amount of military force has yet been able to subdue these rebel fighters, who continue to carry out terrorist attacks as far afield as Moscow with stunning regularity. So Putin came up with a new approach to the Caucasus dilemma — turn the region into a giant ski resort.
In July 2010, Putin announced plans to create a “mountain tourism cluster” stretching across the North Caucasus from the Black Sea to the Caspian. It would create 160,000 jobs throughout the region, he said, jobs that would break the cycle of poverty that has pulled the region’s men into Islamic extremism for years. “We’re talking about a living, absolutely real business idea,” Putin said, insisting that investors would gladly finance the project in order to reap the profits from tourism later on.
It did not take long for the local insurgents to give their response. In February 2011, a group of masked gunmen stopped a minibus full of skiers holidaying in the North Caucasus mountain of Elbrus and shot three of them dead. Tourism to the region slowed to a trickle, while Putin’s critics said he was delusional for trying to turn a war zone into a holiday destination. But the Kremlin pushed ahead with its plan.
A new state corporation was founded, Northern Caucasus Resorts, to help develop not only the future Olympic sites around Sochi but other skiing destinations across the region. The firm was put in charge of developing the Mountain Carousel resort for amateur skiers and, on the same ridge, a world-class set of ski jumps and bobsleigh tracks for the Sochi Olympics. Putin kept tabs on the project personally, and when it fell behind schedule in February 2012, he came to the Mountain Carousel resort and fired the official in charge of the project on the spot.
“That put some fear into the rest of the bureaucrats, and things started moving,” says Vladislav Ovsyannikov, a local historian who has studied the development of the ski resorts around Sochi for most of his life. The region’s original skiing infrastructure had not been built to appeal to European tastes, he says. In 1978, the Soviet government in Moscow sent Ovsyannikov’s father Vladimir to develop a training base for the Soviet national ski team in Krasnaya Polyana, a mountain town above Sochi. What emerged was a bare-bones operation called Alpika (a Russian play on the word alps) with rudimentary lifts and hotels that looked more like barracks.
It remained that way until around 2005, the start of Putin’s second term as President, when state-connected billionaires and corporations started building ski resorts in the area, partly to prepare for Russia’s Olympic bid. When that bid won out in 2007, “a lot of people around here panicked,” Ovsyannikov says. The locals were afraid the mammoth construction project would destroy the small mountain community of ski buffs and outdoorsmen in Krasnaya Polyana.
Those fears were justified. During the first five years of construction, water and electricity supplies were constantly disrupted, roads dug up and houses demolished, says Ovsyannikov, who has lived in the town ever since his father was sent to develop it. “The construction dust was so thick you couldn’t see the sun,” he says. “So believe me, people here cursed these Olympics a thousand times before they finished building them.”
But when they were finished, locals could see that the result was remarkable. The skiing village at the bottom of the Mountain Carousel now looks like a mock-up of an alpine resort, impressive for its gargantuan scale if not exactly for the grace of its design. In the brand-new Gorki Plaza hotel, where the first gondola begins to take skiers up the mountain, no effort or expense has been spared in trying to appeal to foreigner visitors. “We speak every language,” chirped one of the six waitresses who fluttered around me at the door of the hotel’s restaurant when I came in off the street to have breakfast on Sunday. The obsequious attention was no surprise; I was the only person in the place.
The rental office and the ski runs felt equally deserted, and the handful of foreigners I met throughout the day were all there not to ski or watch the Games but to do some form of Olympic business. Gilles Maynard, a Frenchman, charters airplanes, and his firm is running six jumbo-jet flights from Paris to Sochi every four days during the Olympics, mostly carrying journalists, athletes, businessmen and government officials. But will that flood of Frenchmen continue when the Games are over? “They won’t come,” Maynard flatly says. “Why would they come from Europe when they have the Alps next door for less money?” And as for Russia’s efforts to clone French ski resorts in the Caucasus Mountains, Maynard didn’t seem impressed. “It’s built a bit tacky, you know? All the bling-bling, Russian style. That’s not very nice.”
The only draw, both for the locals and the foreigners, seemed to be the summit of the Rosa Khutor resort where the Olympic events are playing out, which has been closed to amateur skiers during the Games. The Olympic staff had a chance to ski its pristine runs before the Games began, and some of them described it as a skiers’ Shangri-la. “The summit is 2,000 m, and from there you can watch the sunset over the Black Sea as you go down,” says Danilo Batinich, an Olympic security contractor from Serbia. “It’s just amazing,” he says. Amazing enough, hopefully, to breathe some life into Putin’s vision for these mountains. But if its big debut is any indication, building a grand resort is one thing. Attracting the world to its slopes is another.
Another Olympics, another skating scandal
It’s only day two of competition in Sochi, and already there are rumblings of a fix in skating judging involving — once again — the Russians. According to French paper l’Equipe, an unnamed Russian coach said the U.S. and Russians have a deal to give the gold in ice dance to Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White in exchange for the Russians getting gold in the inaugural team event. The last big skating scandal, at the 2002 Olympics, also involved Russian skaters when a French judge allegedly voted for the Russian pair to win gold over the Canadians in exchange for Russian votes for a French dance win.
U.S. Figure skating officials immediately denied the latest report, stating “Comments made in a L’Equipe story are categorically false. There is no ‘help’ between countries.”
But if the team event, which gave Russia its first gold of the Games, is any indication, such talk may only flare up again over the next two weeks as the skaters shed their team mantles and return to their individual events. Figure skating in Russia is almost like the World Series or Super Bowl in the United States. Skaters are revered heroes, and with their rich history in dance and ballet, Russian skaters have graced the podium in every discipline — ladies, men, pairs and ice dance — at nearly every Winter Olympics. (Vladimir Putin, the face of the Sochi Games, was in attendance at the Iceberg Palace to witness Russia’s first gold medal win.) Vancouver was an exception; the Russians only managed to win two figure skating medals, neither of them gold, in the men’s and dance events in what they considered their most disappointing Olympic showing in the sport.
Now, however, they have home field advantage, which always tends to elevate athletes’ performance. But as the rumors already suggest, in skating does that inevitably involve suspicious judging? While new rules, put in place for the first time at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, make it harder to push less technical skaters up, it’s still possible to play around with the presentation scores among the top competitors.
Here’s what we know from the team event. When reigning Olympic champion Yuna Kim from South Korea won her gold in 2010, she did so with a Guinness book of world records-setting score of 228.56. Russia’s Yulia Lipnitskaia came awfully close to that, with a personal best of 214.41. Kim, who has been recovering from a foot injury but is back to defend her title, earned 204.02 at her only international competition this season. And Lipnitskaia has only been skating at the elite senior level for two years. With Lipnitskaia’s tight jumps and preternatural maturity, it won’t be hard to keep her up in golden podium territory, but other skaters are equally technically proficient. Japan’s Mao Asada, the 2010 silver medalist, is the only one competing with a triple axel, the highest scoring jump a female skater can do. The U.S.’ Gracie Gold, who, like Lipnitskaia also executed seven clean triples in an elegantly skated program set to Sleeping Beauty, earned a personal best of 129.38 to Lipnitkskaia’s 141.51 (Ashley Wagner skated the short program portion of the competition for the U.S.) However, the Russian teen outscored Gold in the ‘program components’ — the more subjective measure — that reward skaters for their skating skills, presentation and execution of moves.
In the men’s portion of the team event, Russia’s beloved Evgeny Plushenko battled back from retirement, knee injuries, and a couple of back surgeries to finish second behind Japan’s spectacular Yuzuru Hanyu in the short program and to win the free skate with a total of 259.59, just under two points shy of his most recent personal best, two years ago in 2012. Plushenko managed to pull off a quad jump in both his short and free programs, but many of the elite skaters in the upcoming men’s event have at least two quad jumps planned in each routine. Canada’s Kevin Reynolds, in fact, met Plushenko’s quad with three total in his free skate, with a program that began with 13.61 more points built in, thanks to more difficult elements. While Reynolds easily out scored the Russian on technical elements — 89 points to Plushenko’s 81.48, Plushenko make up the difference in the program components mark, soaring ahead of Reynolds with 86.72 points vs.78.92.
Figure skating will never be an objectively contested sport like speed skating or skiing. And as long as there are judges, there will be judges’ opinions and as long as there are opinions, there is the possibility of shenanigans. But that’s what makes skating such an intriguing sport. There’s beauty, sacrifice and talent that create unforgettable athletic moments. And then there are the back-room controversies that make the sport so hard to forget.
Gnarly events like slopestyle snowboarding are a golden gift to American athletes, with young and hungry Olympians bringing home more gold medals in these newly-created competitions than in any of the established ones
It’s easy to forget that there was a time, not all that long ago, when the U.S. pretty much stunk at the Winter Olympics. To wit: during the 1988 Calgary Games, on North American soil no less, the U.S. won two gold medals the entire Olympics.
The Americans have already matched that number over one weekend in Sochi.
Two totally stoked free-spirited snowboarders, Sage Kotsenburg and Jamie Anderson, gave Team USA a rollicking start to the Sochi games, as they each won the gold medal in the inaugural slopestyle snowboarding event. In slopestyle, the athletes navigate a downhill obstacle course, sliding on rails and corkscrewing off jumps to impress the judges. Kotsenburg was particularly ebullient after the win. Steve Politi of NJ.com reports:
Add Sage Kotsenburg to the Dudes List. He is 20 years old and has long bleached-blonde hair streaming out of his ski hat. He has a shiny silver jacket and a gold medal around his neck, the first ever in the new snowboarding slopestyle event at the Olympics and the first for anyone in Sochi.
“I’m so stoked to be here, representing the USA, for sure,” he said, the first of 14 times he used the word stoked during a 22-minute press conference – which has to be an unofficial Olympic record.
This is a dude who, the night before the biggest race of his life, wisely skipped the Opening Ceremonies to rest up … and then spent that night in his room eating any junk food he and his pals could find.
“I was eating mad snacks,” he said. “Chocolate. Onion rings. Chips. We were chilling really hard. Then we fell asleep watching Fight Club. Getting stoked, you know?”
Anderson’s got her quirky side too. Rachel Bachman of the Wall Street Journal writes:
The night before the race she calmed herself with candles, incense, meditation and yoga.
At a postrace interview session, Anderson displayed the totems she carried with her for good luck: a clear quartz (“power stone”), moonstone and mantra beads. Along with her parents and most of her siblings, her “spirit grandma” traveled to Russia to see her compete.
In Vancouver, the U.S. won nine gold medals – more than quadrupling its Calgary haul. The U.S. won a record 37 medals in 2010; in Calgary, the Americans won six. While Team USA has shown vast improvements across most winter sports over the years, no country has benefited more from the addition of extreme Olympic events.
The invisible hand wraps gold around American necks. The U.S. television networks are constantly trying to reach that younger demo. ESPN’s X-Games, which began in 1995, showed that sports like snowboarding could attract an audience. The International Olympic Committee is also on the constant lookout for younger fans.
So everyone’s interests are aligned. NBC pays a ransom for the rights to broadcast the Olympics. The IOC wants NBC’s money, and extreme sports audience. NBC wants events that can deliver a return on its massive investment. So what new events do we see in the Winter Olympics this cycle? Slopestyle snowboarding, plus half-pipe skiing and slopestyle skiing. Gnarly.
The U.S. may have trouble matching the medal haul from Vancouver. When the Americans venture across an ocean for the Winter Games, the winning edge often gets lost in transit. But slopestyle has given Team USA some impressive momentum in Sochi. And given the state of Olympic economics, America’s winter athletes will stay stoked for years.
Images of elite athletes in action
Team USA bobsledder strikes a blow against notoriously poor accommodations
While a certain amount of drama out in the luge or out on the ski slopes is to be expected during the next few weeks, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games aren’t just about the vicissitudes of competition.
They’re also about what has come to be known as “Sochi Problems” — all those embarrassing snafus that happen behind closed—er, broken—doors:
U.S. Olympic bobsledder Johnny Quinn was taking a shower in the notoriously rickety Sochi hotel rooms when he got stuck with no phone or way to call to help. Yep, those hotels that were just barely finished along with the rest of Sochi’s facilities at massive overrun costs. Maybe the hotel’s flimsy door—is that cardboard in there?—actually saved the day.
Zden Charo, Slovakia’s 6-foot-9 professional hockey player will probably need a good night’s sleep before his country’s Feb. 13 match versus the United State, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. This is his bed:
Finally, there was last night’s brief debacle at the opening ceremonies, which besides being really beautiful, had one glaring error: one of the five snowflakes meant to mean materialize into a ring didn’t actually the Opening Ceremonies. But never fear! Russian TV took footage from the rehearsal to smooth over the mistake.
Here’s to smoother sailing for the athletes who made it out of their bathrooms and onto the course, slopes, track, luge, sled, or rink!
American snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg clinched a slopestyle snowboarding victory, as fellow Olympians competed in speed skating, hockey and skiing.
It’s a nightmare to get there. Hotels aren’t ready for guests. The visa alone costs over $200 if you want it processed in a reasonable time frame. When you get there, don’t expect to be able to ski. Then there’s the risk of terrorism. No wonder so few foreigners are bothering to go to Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
CoSport, the official seller of Olympics travel packages for residents in the U.S. and seven other countries, says that it has “experienced demand at expected levels” for the games kicking off this week in Sochi. The private company declined to offer any specifics in terms of number of bookings or inquiries from American travelers, however, and wouldn’t say how interest in Sochi compares to previous games. “It is hard to compare the U.S. fan attendance at Vancouver and Nagano or even Torino,” a spokesman stated via email.
Other agencies promoting Olympics packages give the straightforward analysis that the Sochi games are a disaster, at least in terms of generating interest among vacationers. “This is definitely, from a travel perspective, a low point in terms of a Winter Olympics that I’ve seen in the 20-plus years I’ve been doing it.” Robert Tuchman, president of the New York-based Goviva travel firm, told Businessweek.
The disinterest isn’t limited to the U.S., and it’s not solely due to the fact that Sochi is largely unknown beyond Russia as a travel destination. Theodora Clarke, an art historian and expert on Russian culture, wrote in the Huffington Post UK edition that there are a wide range of reasons why travelers from all sorts of countries are avoiding the world’s premier winter sporting event. The list starts with the cost and difficulty of getting there (very few direct flights, visas run nearly £200 for UK residents). Oh, and if you want to ski in the tracks of the Olympians, it’s best to wait until long after the games are over. “For best chance of skiing Sochi in the Olympic year we’d suggest looking at late March 2014,” the UK tour operator Crystal Ski warns on its website.
Media coverage for the buildup to the games, meanwhile, has been dominated by criticism that runs the gamut: mismanagement, waste, and corruption, Russia’s record on gay rights, heightened concern about terrorism, photos spread via social media showing how shockingly unprepared Sochi facilities are to host athletes and guests. The general perception of Sochi—which is reportedly running a record-high price tag close to $50 billion, compared to $7 billion for the previous Winter Olympics, in Vancouver—is the one summed up by James Surowiecki of the New Yorker:
One thing is certain: this Winter Olympics is the greatest financial boondoggle in the history of the Games.
If Russia is to see any return on its investment, it’ll be in the form of Russia—and Sochi in particular—somehow getting a boost down the line in terms of foreign business and tourism interest. As the Telegraph (UK) put it, the hope is that the event overcomes the PR debacle leading up to the games (described as “little short of disastrous”) and manages to put Sochi, and Russia, in general “on the map” for global jetsetters who would have otherwise never given them a second glance.
Sochi will have to put on one heck of a spectacle in order to reach that goal. The San Jose Mercury News reported that many American Olympians have been trying to talk their families out of seeing the games in person, due to the costs (“$8,000 without airfare,” the dad of one luger said) and other issues (“You can throw a rock and hit Chechnya,” a bobsledder from California said).
And if it’s difficult to sell people on the idea of visiting Sochi when they have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see family members compete in the Olympics, imagine what it’ll take to get them to trek to Sochi long after the games are over.
Snowboarder wins slopestyle event after Shaun White's withdrawal
The first gold medal of the winter 2014 Olympics has been won by snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg for his first-place finish Saturday in men’s slopestyle snowboarding.
The long-haired Utahan, 20, was the third rider of 12 in the slopestyle final, and took the gold after an inventive run that involved landing a trick he’d never done before, USA Today reports. “It’s pretty sick to see that some weird, creative stuff got rewarded,” Kotsenburg said.
The difficult course attracted controversy when Team USA superstar Shaun White pulled out of the event citing safety concerns, leaving the field open for contenders like Kotsenburg, as well as Norway’s Staale Sandbech (silver) and Canada’s Mark McMorris (bronze).
More: Highlights From The Opening Ceremony in Sochi