Something was a little off in Sochi


You’ve experienced this, right?

You walk into a party and everything seems pretty normal. There’s a table with party snacks — seven-layer dip already demolished with tortilla chip scrape marks on the side of the pan. Spinach dip in the hollowed-out bread bowl cooled to an inedible pot of dried cheese and green. Solo cups teetering at the end next to a bucket of melty ice in front of the liter bottles of soda and fifths of cheap Scotch nobody has cared to open.

You survey the room and all your people are there. Friends, their families. Maybe coworkers. Couples you’ve only known as couples and single folks who used to be one-half of a couple standing in the dark recesses of the room, searching like a wounded veteran for their lost appendage.

The faces are familiar, the music’s the same and the dulcet hum of eighteen conversations going on at once swirls through the room and escapes up out of the chimney. It all feels comfortable and safe.

And yet, something is a little off.

You can’t place it, but it’s more “off” than just maybe you chose the wrong sweater or forgot to put on socks. It’s in the demeanor of the hosts. Maybe it’s the look that someone’s been crying recently and their eyes have that freshly washed car sheen. Or maybe when they smile or laugh you can tell it’s not the kind of smile and laugh you’re used to but it’s one they had to conjure from somewhere else.

You do your time. You talk a little, nurse a drink a little, but something’s telling you the whole time that you need to go.

So eventually, you do.

You stroll outside, open the gate and shut it as quietly and as slowly as you can, so even you can’t hear the latch click. You look back in for a moment and you see the shadows in the room and hear the voices climb into the night air. And you turn to your partner and give them a look. And they say, “That was weird.”

And it was.

Weeks, months or years later you find out what actually happened. Maybe there was a diagnosis of some sort. Maybe someone had just lost a job. Maybe it was a divorce or the reveal of events that turn into the makings of a divorce. But there’s always something. And you’re driving somewhere with your partner and you’re talking about what’s been going on and then one of you traces back to that night and they say, “Something was a little off — I knew it.”

The thing is, people always know it. People always can tell.

I wasn’t in Sochi, Russia. I didn’t have to use the hashtag sochiproblems. I didn’t get to ride the half-assed half-pipe. I wasn’t asked to try to ski my best 85-mph run on rock salt. The judges didn’t mysteriously deduct a tenth of a point from my score for putting a toe down when I didn’t. Under Armour’s over-engineered and under-tested skating suits didn’t slow me down hundredths of a second a lap. I wasn’t asked to stare Cyborg Bob in his Terminator T-800 eye and pretend everything was all right.

And I’m glad I didn’t have to. Because it wasn’t all right. These Sochi games, were, just — well, they were just a little off.

Bill Demong, a Park City guy who took home a gold and silver from the Vancouver Games, finished what he called a “devastating” 31st in Nordic combined (ski jumping and cross-country skiing) the last week in Sochi.

The five-time Olympian knows a thing or two about competition but in these, his final games, he couldn’t find the words to describe his performance.

“Nothing felt that bad, nothing looked that bad. Coaches were, like, not super sure,” he said. “And that’s the problem. I think I’m old enough and wise enough to be able to have expectations and follow through on them, and then a day like today happens and it kind of throws you for a loop.”

What he was trying to say was, “Something threw me a bit.”

Anchorage legend Kikkan Randall came to these games with the heady-but-realistic aspiration of taking home the first US medal in cross-country skiing since 1976. Instead, she failed to reach the semis in her favored discipline, the women’s sprint. She posted an Instagram picture shrugging. Because, well, what else can you do after dominating world cups for the last decade and not making it to the main stage in your last games?

“That’s sport, right?” Randall said. “You prepare your whole life for something like this, and it’s over in two and a half minutes.”

In other words, “Something wasn’t quite right.”

There were bright spots for the US team. Downhill skiers Bode Miller, Ted Ligety and Julia Mancuso, at ages 36, 29 and 29 respectively, improbably each took home medals as the elder statesmen of their sport and ambassadors the likes of which the US has never seen on the slopes.

Ligety, who won the combined in 2006, came up short in Vancouver, but left Sochi with a gold in giant slalom. Miller became the oldest medalist in Olympic alpine history with his sixth medal, a bronze in Super-G, and Mancuoso became the winningest women’s skier in US history taking home a fourth medal in combined.

And yet, even in the afterglow of the medals ceremony, there was little indicator any one of these skiers want Sochi to be the last stamp on their legacy. Miller especially, who by all counts should’ve been up in the booth with a headset and double ice packs strapped to his knees with Ace bandages, walker at the ready, this Olympics — was loath to discuss leaving the sport with the bad aftertaste of Russian winter in his mouth.

“I brought home the bronze in my wife’s favorite event, so I think this might be the time to hang it up,” he recently told Stephen Colbert. “But if I can go for another one, [I will] if my body holds up.”

In other words, thanks Russia. Thank you for your weirdness, your millennia of oppression. Thank you for your partnership in World War II then painting all the walls gray and shutting human rights under lock and key letting organized crime rule for the next half-century.

Thank you for spending $50-plus billion in Sochi, the most of any Olympics ever and more than seven times that of Vancouver. Thanks for showcasing Vladimir Putin’s nation state of permafronst, on the eastern shores of the Black Sea beneath the long-stretching shadows of the Caucasus Mountains — vacationland and seaside state-subsidized ATM to Russia’s most feared bosses.

Ded Khasan, Russia’s version of Don Corleone, hailed from Sochi and reportedly used his henchmen to shake down the firms contracted to build Olympic venues. In 2009, he ran into another family head named Tariel Oniani. Oniani allegedly took out two of Khasan’s top men and before Khasan could retaliate, he was gunned down by a sniper in the streets of Sochi in 2010. This opened up a free-for-all of criminal activity and turned the games into a Russian mob money grab.

Sochi residents were evicted without notice, dragged in the streets like the stray dogs who stole so many headlines, and were simply forgotten. Disappeared. Vanished. Just like Putin’s official budget for the games and any native naysayers of them.

NBC’s coverage glossed over all of this, lobbing loosely packed snowball questions to Russia-friendly journalists and taking in the views from 25,000 feet like the establishing shot over the snow-capped mountains. But on the ground, the mood was at the very least nervous and dreary and at its worst, dire.

World-class athletes, who know their bodies better than any of us mortals, can always tell when something’s not clicking. And it showed no more than in the universal body language of these games.

One father of an American Olympian, my neighbor in Park City, recently told a mutual friend, “I can’t tell you how, but things just weren’t 100-percent right.”

Whether it’s a tenth of a second slow, a puck beneath the glove or a meter or two short, that’s just how you feel — when something is a little off.