SOCHI, Russia -- The 1980 Miracle on Ice is generally considered America's greatest moment in sports. The game pitted the world's two superpowers against each other at a time when Cold War tensions were extremely high. Just before the Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., started, President Jimmy Carter announced that the U.S. would boycott the Olympics in Moscow later that summer unless the Soviet Union pulled out from its recent invasion of Afghanistan.
Who at that time could imagine how different the world would be 34 years later when the United States finally competed in an Olympics in Russia?
That Russia would be Russia, not the Soviet Union? That our troops, not theirs, would be in Afghanistan?
That a Winter Olympics in Russia would be held in a city so warm that midway through the Games women were sunbathing in bikinis on the beach while dolphins frolicked in the water?
That an American snowboarder from Washington would win two gold medals for Russia because that country provided him with much better funding than the United States?
For that matter, who could imagine that snowboarding would be a sport?
The Cold War ended nearly a quarter-century ago, yet those times still hold tight in the American psyche. Old perceptions of Russia remain so firmly rooted that media and politicians constantly heightened fear of danger and terror, as if mass shootings in schools, malls, theaters and coffee shops are not a tragically regular occurrence in the U.S.
For Americans, those perceptions added a layer of intrigue to these Games that was not present four years ago in Vancouver, where the major concern was generally how long the lines would be for Tim Hortons donuts. Prior to these Games, we wondered: What would the Olympics be like in mysterious, former Communist Russia?
Well, they generally were like most Olympics held anywhere.
Despite widespread concerns, security was both tight and refreshingly unobtrusive. Once inside the Olympic ring, security clearance was quicker and smoother than at any U.S. airport. Transportation was the most dependable and frequent of any of the 11 Olympics I've covered. Despite all the tweets and blogs, housing was also better than usual. The Russian workers and volunteers were helpful and friendly. They deserve a gold medal and a big spasiba (and probably a raise).
There was, however, a distressing lack of winter atmosphere. That's not unexpected when the host city has a subtropical climate, doesn't actually hold any events -- Adler, not Sochi, was the site of all non-mountain competitions -- and builds virtually everything from scratch at a cost of more than $50 billion. The mountain cluster had a Potemkin village feel, what with the facades of new buildings that often held no businesses or few customers (though there was a line at the Cinnabon at a Gorki mall).
While that was disappointing, the athletes and competitions are the most important parts of each Olympics, and Sochi did not disappoint there.
Bode Miller became the oldest alpine medalist at 36, Mikaela Shiffrin was the youngest slalom champ at age 18, and the women's downhill ended in the first tie for gold in Olympic alpine history.