Now that I have returned home from Russia, the number one question from everyone is, "How did you like the Sochi Olympics?" And as I answer this question each time, it forces me to think back and analyze the 3 weeks in Russia.
First of all, I have to say that even in conditions that were less than ideal, it was still the Olympics, and I was really glad to be there.
I will start with the bad parts.
Honestly, the thing that bugged me the most (and was shared by many other people I talked to this time around) was the lack of soul of this Olympics. Normally, the best part of being at the Olympics is the vibe. When I would walk around Vancouver or London, you would be surrounded by people who were in the Olympic spirit and excited to be there. But this year, I really did not see any of that. I am not sure why this is, but it could be for numerous reasons:
1. Sochi is a small town, far from any large city. This made it very difficult for people, including Russians, to get there. Most of the venues had empty seats for even the most popular events.
2. The terror threats kept many people away, and cast a negative tone on the Sochi Olympics.
3. Most of us in the media stayed in the "Olympic bubble" for security reasons, and because there was almost no reason to leave the grounds. This meant that there was less mingling with the spectators.
For me this was sad, as I have always enjoyed the positive environment of the Olympics.
As many of you know, the housing was another negative part of the Olympics for me, paying a lot of money for a place that was lacking many of the services I needed. Here we were, the media, staying in a "hotel" with no Internet (for the first week), very few power outlets that worked, and with locks that could barely keep a child out of the room. At first I was really freaking out about the housing, but I learned to adapt to it. And...with a week left at the Olympics, we did get Internet that was working and reliable. The funniest part is that, after 3 weeks of staying at Omega 18 (which I jokingly called Stalag 18), on the day that I left, they came and installed a hair dryer in my room. Have you seen my head? This was not critical for me! :)
Another bad part of this Olympics was the food in the Olympic Park. In past Olympics, the press center had very good food options for us, with international choices. So, we could choose to have asian, mexican, western or local cuisine. This time around, the food court had very few options and the food was not very good. The worst part was that those options never changed. They served the same 5 things for the entire month. The food court could probably seat 500 people or more, and I swear I never saw more than 30 people in there at one time. It was that bad. So, what did that leave us? Well...there was a McDonalds on site and many of us ended up eating there way more often than we would ever admit. After the second week, I felt like I was living in that "Super Size Me" movie. There were two sit down restaurants outside the press center, and those served pretty decent food. But they were both expensive and they took a while to get us food. At the Olympics, we move at a fast pace all day and all night. Sitting down for an hour long meal or traveling far to eat was not usually an option.
After the Olympics were over and I had a couple of days to explore the towns of Sochi and Adler, we did find some pretty good restaurants.
Traveling to and from Sochi had its challenges too. Most of us flew into the city via Aeroflot Airlines, and for the most part, they were excellent. But they have very strict policies on carry-on and checked luggage. I have flown all over the world with my LowePro x200 rolling bag, and I have never had an issue carrying it onboard. But Aeroflot said that it was too heavy to put in the overhead. Mind you, I have put this in overhead compartments countless times. And I really wasn't comfortable checking a bag with $25,000 worth of camera equipment. I had to get creative with this one. And, they also were strict about the 22k weight restriction on checked luggage, adding steep overage charges to passengers. I talked to a couple of people who had to pay more than $300 for excess weight and to get an extra bag checked.
The best part of the shooting the Olympics in Sochi was probably the Olympic venues. I loved the proximity of all of the venues in the coastal cluster. I could move from men's hockey to women's hockey to speed skating or curling, all within a 5 minute walk. That was awesome!
The transportation was also very good in Sochi. I am not sure if they blocked the roads for locals, but we almost never saw any traffic on the roads, and the buses ran like clockwork.
I should also mention that the evolution in photography equipment really helped in Sochi. Shooting with the Canon 1DX cameras, and being able to use the Canon 200-400mm lens for all the outside sports was just amazing. I loved carrying one big lens around, as opposed to trying to figure out which focal range (300mm to 600mm) to carry with me. And once again, using the fastest memory cards, readers and laptop helped me meet those crazy fast deadlines.
This year, even more than Olympics past, I was able to interact with the athletes on a daily basis. I think that this comes with working with the teams in past years, and earning their trust. Getting to know the athletes is such a thrill. Not only to see the personalities behind the faces, but to be more invested in their outcome of the competition.
And...of course...I am always thrilled with the opportunity to photograph some of the top athletes in the world. If it wasn't for them and their abilities, my photos would not be as interesting. They help make the photos come alive!
One thing that did not change from my prior Olympic games, was the camaraderie amongst the photographers. We tend to see the same faces every couple of years (although there are some photographers who only shoot the Summer games or just the Winter games), and we get to know each other pretty well. And this year, like the others, I made many new friends, one who even lives very near my home town.
Speaking of new friends, this year was a chance for me to share all of the photos and stories with you all, my new online friends. And it was so much fun to have the interactions with people from all over the world. Many of you posted comments or emailed me telling me that you were learning from me. And I learned from many of you as well. There were numerous times when I would post something new to me, only to find out that many of you were familiar with the situation, and would help educate me. The best comments were the messages saying that complete strangers felt like we were friends, and I felt the same way from my side of the computer.
As always, I plan to write blogs at least once a week and share different photos and experiences with you. And then in another couple of years, I will be off to Rio to photograph the Summer Olympics. That should be fun!