For Olympic athletes, a comfortable place in Sochi to call home

McClatchy Foreign StaffFebruary 6, 2014 

— Within the sprawling athletes’ village along the Black Sea coast of Russia, Olympians and their assistants can hop on a bicycle, wander a trail through the wetlands and consider whether to dive into a handful of swimming pools.

A walk through the community this week showed that in the athletes’ coastal village, things look much more put together than among the much-maligned media hotels a few kilometers away. On an informal media tour Thursday afternoon, there were the occasional sounds of hammers, two men cleaned an empty pool and the village’s “Ornithological Park” looked suspiciously like a stormwater drainage pond. But the pond did have ducks, and much of the grounds had grass. And athletes said they’d experienced no problems.

“It’s good here. I’m very happy,” said Vanessa Bittner, a speed skater from Austria attending her first Olympics.

On the one side of the village lies the Black Sea, sparkling Thursday under blue skies and 45-degree weather. The air was warm enough that in Canada’s hotel, a man rode a bike trainer on his balcony; a woman sunbathed next door.

On the other side are views of the Caucasus Mountains, capped in snow and snuggled under high clouds, where the mountain sports are being held. There, other athletes lived in the Mountain Village and the Endurance Village.

Two biathletes from Slovakia, down from Krasnaya Polyana for a day free from training, said their homes in the athletes’ endurance cluster were just as nice.

“Small, but nice,” said Paulína Fialkova.

But organizers still seemed concerned. Even after assurances before the tour that media could interview athletes as long as the competitors were in agreement, local Sochi volunteers and staff were reluctant to allow the conversations. A reporter and photographer were interrupted during interviews in the dining hall, were asked to leave the recreation building and were not admitted to the fitness center.

But most in the village were friendly, eager to praise their accommodations.

“It’s good, it’s very good,” said Hui Feng Kang, a speed skating trainer from China.

“The food – well, you’ve seen McDonald’s. You gotta go for it!” laughed Tomas Marcinko, an ice hockey player from Slovakia who once played in Bridgeport, Conn., and was walking with his team toward the rink for some practice time. “The rooms are also nice. There’s not a lot to do here, but we came here to play hockey, not to stay in our rooms and stare at the walls.”

There are a few things to do. The recreation building has all-you-can-drink refrigerators of Coke products, video games and pool, an ice hockey table and a small stage, dubbed a night club by Olympic organizers. Along its side are small, couch-laden rooms enrobed by curtains. VIP lounges, of course.

Outside, each building has bicycles outside for athletes to ride along the empty streets and the paved trail that connects the residences to the dining hall. Holland’s are, of course, all orange.

There’s the fitness center. And the dining hall, with a salad bar, the McDonald’s and buffets featuring cuisine from Europe and Asia.

And just about all the teams drape flags or banners from their buildings. Notably missing? The United States. They’re there, though. The speed skating team emerged from its hotel Thursday to walk toward the media center for a press conference.

Brittany Bowe of Ocala, Fla., said she’s enjoyed meeting U.S. athletes from other sports while hanging out at the complex. She hopes to attend some of their events if possible.

“I like how all the venues are close together,” said Heather Richardson, of High Point, N.C., who also competed in Vancouver. “It’s almost like Disneyworld.”

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