Grading the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi have come and gone, seemingly over in just a few short days. The 98 events featured almost 3,000 competing athletes from 88 countries. The host nation came away with surprising victories in both the most golds and most total medals. The United States team, considered heavy favorites before the Games began, largely disappointed and finished 4th in golds and 2nd in total medals. There were tremendous concerns about how the Sochi Games would play out. Would their facilities hold up? How would security be handled? Would protesters overrun the games? Heck, would Putin turn it into the 2014 Hunger Games? All of these concerns were quelled once the Games were underway, but how did they grade out overall?

Opening and Closing Ceremonies: B+

Anticipation for the opening ceremonies is always sky-high, but this year’s was even more so given the reported $51 billion spent on the Games. London’s opening for the 2012 Summer Games was outstanding and set a high bar for Sochi to meet. The opening ceremony did an excellent job of conveying Russia’s rich history. It was aesthetically pleasing with an extravagant blend of bright colors and sometimes dark undertones as they displayed Russia’s proud history. The one technical difficulty occurred when the fifth and final ring didn’t expanded into its full form, instead looking like a snowflake next to four rings. It was a small blemish on an otherwise great performance. The closing ceremony did the unexpected by making fun of the incident (shown below)! No one would have guessed that Russia (specifically Putin) would ever make light of such an embarrassing situation. Everyone loved it. It made Russia seem so much warmer, so much more like they had real people instead of robots. After all, self-deprecating humor is the best humor. It allows everyone to laugh about it together. Russia pulled out all of the stops for their ceremonies, and it largely paid off.

Russia pokes fun of their opening ceremony gaff during the closing ceremony.

Facilities / Conditions: C-

Before the opening ceremony had even begun, the socialsphere was already exploding about the conditions in Sochi. Pictures went viral showing yellow sink water, unfinished rooms/buildings, and stray dogs in the streets. As the Games continued, the attention shifted away from the living conditions, which were probably overblown from the beginning. I’m not saying that unfinished rooms and undrinkable water is acceptable, but many of our responses showed just how spoiled we are. While the focus on living conditions slowly faded away, the emphasis on the course conditions picked up the slack. Olympians (Americans in particular) were quick to point out the miserable conditions caused by overly warm weather and time restrictions placed on the people who managed the various events. Temperatures exceeded 50 degrees at several points, which caused dangerous conditions for the athletes. While there was little that Russia could do about the warm weather, it did harm the experience and integrity of the events. My high-school football always said something to the extent of “We want the worst conditions. Bad conditions favor the team that is the most disciplined.” I don’t know if that applies here or not, but I do know that we will never know what results might have been different if the conditions had been ideal. Congratulations to all the athletes that fought through the tough conditions and earned a hard-fought medal.

Performances / Star Power: C+

Almost every Olympics, both summer and winter, have a few breakout stars that capture the hearts of millions as they make their way into Olympic history. Past winter games have seen athletes like Shaun White and Lindsey Vonn become household names, but this year seemed to be lacking in the star-power department. The 2014 games seemed to be filled with more disappointments than triumphs. Shaun White, Shani Davis, J.R. Celski, and the Men’s hockey team all failed to medal after expectations were almost certainly gold or bust. The men’s speed-skaters and women’s figure skaters (Gracie Gold & Ashley Wagner) did not live up to expectations. In fact, it was the first time since 1936 that the US hasn’t won an individual figure skating medal, and since 1984 that we haven’t won a speed-skating medal. The women’s hockey did earn silver, but wasted a “golden” opportunity by blowing a 2-0 lead to Canada.

That isn’t to say there weren’t brilliant performances by Americans. Meryl Davis and Charlie White were as dominant as advertised. Ted Ligety captured gold yet again, eight years after getting his first. Noelle Pikus-Pace came out of retirement to win her first ever medal in the Skeleton at the age of 31, after failing to win bronze by one-tenth of a second in Vancouver. If I had to project the biggest potential star exiting this year’s Games, it would have to be Mikaela Shiffrin. The 18-year old won gold in the women’s slalom and did it in dramatic fashion. After the first run, she had a commanding lead and appeared guaranteed to win gold. During her second run, she slipped and went onto one ski (causing me to audibly yell at the TV). She recovered brilliantly and finished with a comfortable lead for gold. She is young, attractive, and remarkably talented. She will likely be competitive, if not dominant, for at least two more Olympic Games barring injuries or unforeseen circumstances. The future looks bright for this rising star.

Mikaela Shiffrin wins her first gold medal at the age of 18.

Mikaela Shiffrin wins her first gold medal at the age of 18. She was one of US’ breakout stars.

Security: A+

One of the biggest concerns going into the 2014 Sochi Games was the security of the athletes and spectators. Rumors of terrorist attacks, suicide bombers, or other violent protests were concerns coming into Sochi, but were almost non-existent once the opening ceremony began. I obviously was not there to experience it firsthand, but I never heard any of the athletes complaining about feeling at-risk or unsafe. You can’t say enough about the job that the security team did in keeping all of the athletes and viewers safe.

TV Coverage: B+

This grade might be revised once the final TV ratings for the Games are released, but the coverage from NBC was excellent. They focused on the “live” performances themselves, but did a good job of mixing in side stories such as touching back-stories for many of the athletes. The broadcasters for individual events were generally knowledgeable and pleasant to hear commentate. Two “black-eyes” stick out in my mind regarding the coverage, and yes, one of those black eyes is almost a literal one. Bob Costas fought through an eye infection like a trooper, but it was quite distracting to watch. Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira did an admirable job of filling in while Bob recuperated from his eye infection. The second black-eye was obtained during an interview with Bronze medal winner Bode Miller. Miller lost his brother last year and was clearly emotional after the race. Christin Miller, who was interviewing Miller, continued to probe about how Bode was feeling about his brother after the race until he eventually broke down and had to walk away from the interview. The full transcript of the race can be found here. Bode eventually came to the defense of Miller on Twitter, but it still rubbed me the wrong way. Other than these two issues, the TV coverage was superb.

Overall: B-

My overall feeling towards these Games is a solid “Meh.” I wanted to be able to engage with it constantly, for it to captivate me for over 2 weeks and leave me wanting more. In the end, it wasn’t quite the experience I was looking for. To a large degree, this was not Sochi’s fault. Our athletes did not perform to their abilities. Not to take away from the other athletes, but USA should always win the medal count for the Winter Olympics. We have too many athletes competing in these events and too many resources dedicated to them to fall short. Sochi was a flawed, but admirable host. They kept the Games going without too many hitches. They gave the world a glimpse into their history, culture, and lives for a few weeks. The 2016 Olympics will be taking place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Hopefully they, and American athletes, can deliver an unforgettable performance that will leave us all wanting more.