SOCHI, Russia -- A Russian man shouted into his phone from inside a gondola coming down the mountain. "Lena, what?" he asked in Russian. "You weren't paying attention? You don't care? We won gold. A gold medal, Lena!" Team Russia had just won the men's biathlon relay, one of the final competitions of the Sochi Olympics. The penultimate night of these Games had darkened the valley, though it sparkled with light.
Now that the Olympics were coming to a close, I asked my fellow gondola passenger to share his impressions of the experience. The Russian, who said he worked in the food and beverage business in Krasnaya Polyana and was from Rostov-on-Don, an eight-hour drive north of here, beamed. "People who have been to many Olympics told us they never would have expected this," he said. "They said everything was of the highest quality. We are very proud." Then he asked, "What was your impression of the Olympics here?"
The gondola craned over a ridge. His face appeared now and again in the lights of the lift stanchions as we passed by them. I thought about expectations and conclusions. What had we all expected from the Sochi Olympics? What had Russia wanted them to be? The Sochi Olympics were Russia's chance to educate an ignorant world about itself, its capabilities, and its political and social system. In the end, what was the lesson?
Hands-down, Russia succeeded in proving to a skeptical world that it could execute a monumental undertaking such as this one. A trip to the biathlon final was enough to reveal this. Everything was well organized. Everything was where it should have been. Helpful volunteers were posted at every junction, guiding visitors across the landscape. The biathlon tribune and shooting gallery was lit up like a bright afternoon, the various components of the exacting course aligned in perfect detail. Surely, this was simply biathlon's international standard for competition, but it was remarkable to see this here in Russia, where details often suffer neglect. When I asked a young volunteer if there was to be any action following the men's relay, she smiled. "Yeah!" she said. "Big party!"
Biathlon was on the TV at the party held at Krasnaya Polyana's Winehouse restaurant. In super-slow motion, a bullet ejected from a biathlete's rifle tumbled through the air. This made sense. Those gathered at Winehouse were part of the team that had produced the international TV feeds from the skiing events. They were mostly American and Canadian, ski bums mostly from the Rockies range. This was a wrap party, and the crowd was getting rowdy. Over the past few weeks, they had bought owner Igor Zubkov out of his 2012 vintage merlot. They were filling their glasses now from a huge wine barrel perched on the bar. They were taking stock of their Russian experience.