THE BLOG

Sochi, As the Russians See It

01/21/2014 05:16 EST | Updated 03/23/2014 05:59 EDT

My life has been in Sochi-mode for the past six months.

I'd been in discussion with the CBC about doing a series of features that would be broadcast during the Games. Done it before in Lillehammer and Atlanta.

This time it would just be me and a Digital SLR camera.

I would focus on accidental illuminations that come from observing local life and local people. That's what my proposal was about -- a series of vivid illustrations of a strange place.

As so often happens in this business, everything has to fall perfectly into place before a proposal turns into a contract. And at the CBC, well, there's a whole lot of eyes to get past.

The contract didn't materialize but I've got all this research and sources inside the country and I'm going to write on it instead.

No sense in wasting six months of work.

Much has already been made about the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi being the most expensive ever -- $51 billion by most estimates. More than all the other previous winter games combined. That the sheer force of Vladimir Putin's will is driving it forward for his own political aims.

Millions of words have already been written about corruption and security.

But if you know anything about Russia, you know that corruption is as natural as breathing. Doesn't make it right, it's just the "system." As for security, there's a lot of people with the means to get back at Putin and his policies of aggression in the Northern Caucasus. That's part of life in the modern Russia too.

But who would have thought that Russia's most popular summer resort would host a Winter Olympics?

In fact outside Russia's borders, who had ever heard of Sochi before? This spa resort is for provincial Russians and billionaire oligarchs alike. Where "Uncle Joe" Stalin, war time leader and feared dictator, had a cottage (known as a Dacha), that still stands as a museum today in Sochi.

Sochi is as quintessentially Russian as Moscow or St. Petersburg.

Russians love the card game called "Preferance", and a popular saying from the nation's favourite card game is often used as a reference point: "If I could read the cards I'd rather be in Sochi." There is an association of Sochi and its inhabitants with the luck of the cards, with an accidental and unpredictable fortune.

And at the heart of the Olympics is the discovery of the people of the host country.

"The most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people," wrote Dostoevsky, "is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything." So how have Russians endured after 100 years of intense trauma including two major revolutions, two world wars, a civil war and other military conflicts, years of famine and 70 years of Soviet repression that imprisoned and killed millions of its citizens?

Not many civilizations could have endured. Yet Russia stayed intact. And it wants respect.

But instead of only evaluating Russia by its politics, it is more accurate to comprehend the country's durability by a greater appreciation of the country's people. The expansion in scale of the Olympic Games has been one of the most astonishing global phenomena of the last quarter of the 20th century and into the new millennium. The Olympic "movement" is based upon a heady mix of political intrigue, national self-posturing, corporate greed and individual self-aggrandizement. Corporations first, television second and the athletes third.

In Atlanta I spent some time with the famous muckraking journalist Andrew Jennings, who wrote several books outlining the history of corruption and bribery both within the Olympic movement and at FIFA, the governing body of world soccer

The five-ring circus -- an industry, not a movement, he insists, and certainly not a family -- looks at the way romantic myths about sports and global unity have masked a mean, corporate and corrupt machine that has hopelessly skewed the priorities of countries hosting and bidding on the Olympics.

I remember asking him about the best way to cover an Olympics.

"If you're a journalist," he told me "the first thing you should try and find out is 'why is this lying bastard lying to me?'"

Puzzled, but intrigued, I listened intently as he went on.

"News is what somebody, somewhere wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising."

Now I understand that our entire adult lives can be a battle against cynicism but the thoughts had some merit, it seemed to me.

I'll try not to be too cynical as I write my way through the Olympics.

Man, I wish I was there.

Sochi Olympic Torch