The Olympics of Control — 2014 or 1984?

Sochi may be sunny and the skies bright blue, but I feel as if the Olympics are in 1984.

I walked into the Olympic Village train station and was confronted by the longest row of x-ray machines I have seen in my life. There were more x-ray machines and more gray uniformed security guards as this suburban rail station than I saw last month when transiting through Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport.

But, once aboard, I found the spiffy new “Expres” still had that homey feel of a creaking Moscow “Elektrichka”: a red-faced young man whining to a (presumably irate and female) caller: “No!! I have not been drinking!!”

It is not enough to buy a ticket to an Olympic event. You have to also apply for a spectator pass. Security wants to know who will sit in each and every seat. The nanny state has already told several dissidents they can forget about using their Olympics tickets. Other than that, everyone should feel spontaneous, act happy, and be polite.

Closed circuit TV is everywhere. I can only hope that Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister responsible for the Olympics, misspoke Thursday when he answered a reporter’s question about housing problems this way: “We have surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the shower, direct the nozzle at the wall, and then leave the room for the whole day.”

In addition to monitoring visitors’ physical movements, state security is monitoring visitors’ mental movements.

In Sochi, every email, SMS and phone call is being recorded. Given last week’s leak of a recording of two American diplomats discussing Ukraine, we kind of suspected that. It still makes Russia an odd refuge for Edward Snowden, flag bearer of the privacy cause.

On the topic of housing, I have received five queries from female friends fishing for delicious horror stories about the state of my room.

The one male query came from Jerry Kobalenko, the Canadian Arctic adventurer in Banff: “Jim, as someone who knows Russia well, you should do a bit on the spoiled Western reporters coming to Sochi and expressing horror because they expected Russia would still offer them their Starbucks (or antiseptic bathrooms) just like at home.”

Sorry, I side with Jerry.

A lot of journalists are fit to be tied to discover that the Russians, on building 24,000 hotel rooms in three years, placed a priority on completing the rooms of athletes over rooms of journalists. (I mean, who is more important here, anyhow?)

There is the German photographer who threw up his hands when he discovered a stray dog snoozing in a half-completed room down the hall. Well, with “Animal Control” teams combing Sochi like Cruella de Vil, where would you take refuge if you were a stray dog?

I have a top, fifth-floor room with the most sunshine I have seen since I was in Rio de Janeiro six months ago.

Ok, the elevator, sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. But yesterday, I noticed on my tour on the Mountain Olympic Village that the athletes at 1,200 meters elevation spurned shuttle buses and hiked to the gondola station. Odd how they invariably had flat stomachs. At sea level, I can handle five flights of stairs.

Ok, there was no soap (fixed). I still can’t figure out how to use the TV (not a new phenomenon). And the water dribbles out of my shower head (I survived summer camp).

Hopefully, Sochi will follow the trajectory of Beijing, Vancouver and London. After several days of nervous, pre-game trash talking, everyone will now focus on the athletes.

Let the Games begin!


(Photo: Sochi 2014 Winter Games via



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.