-- SOCHI, Russia -- Normally when I leave home to cover the Olympics, friends tell me they are jealous and ask whether they may come along as my assistant. This year, they instead told me they would be praying for me. One good friend brought over an emergency pack that included a blanket, body warmers and a respirator dust mask, then apologized for forgetting to include rosary beads.
No one volunteered to carry my bags.
Security concerns may be elevated for the 2014 Sochi Games but they are really as much of an Olympic routine as bribery, corruption and cost overruns. For the 2004 Games in Athens, our crew was required to attend an all-day security briefing and first aid course in which we were instructed to always carry a "grab bag'' with a respirator, flashlight, passport and enough money to buy a plane ticket home.
This time, we were given phone apps that will allow our security firm to track our location, warned about our emails being read and our tech devices hacked, and instructed to wipe our computers for malware upon our return home.
In other words, these Olympics are a little like going to Target during the Christmas shopping season or logging into your Google account. The difference here is that instead of typing "spring training'' into a search engine and quickly receiving an ad for a hotel package in St. Petersburg, Fla., I will receive an ad for a hotel in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Speaking of hotels, there are multitudes of stories about the housing situation here, most very funny, some genuinely disturbing and others that are just plain petty. My room is actually one of the better ones I've had at an Olympics, plus our complex has a couple bars and quaint market stalls selling Russian arts, crafts and souvenirs. Still, it's not comforting to learn a friend came home to an unlocked, open door or to hear that Big Brother might really have a video camera mounted in your bathroom.
But hey, the wine in the bar is only 30 rubles, or just 85 cents a glass. Seriously, 85 cents! And it's not bad wine.
I wonder how much of the fears and complaints stem from preconceived notions of Russia that date back to Soviet times and the Cold War. Russia and our relationship with the country -- including mutual Olympic boycotts -- certainly add a rich layer of intrigue to these Games, though that's probably truer for aging writers than the athletes.
After all, there are very few Olympians old enough to recall when the former Soviet Union existed. Heck, when it comes to Evil Empires, some Olympians are too young to remember when the Yankees were winning World Series after World Series instead of the Red Sox.
As you might have heard, there is a new world order.
U.S. pairs skater Simon Shnapir was born in Russia and moved to the U.S. as an infant. American figure skater Polina Edmunds' mother is from Russia, where she met Edmunds' father when he was a tourist teaching English in Moscow. "I don't speak Russian too well but I can speak OK. And I fully understand it,'' Edmunds said. "My mom and my grandmother will talk to me in Russian and I respond in English.''
Like the old Bridge of Spies in Cold War Berlin, this East-West migration goes both ways. Vic Wild, a top snowboarder from Washington state, gained a Russian passport through marriage to a Russian snowboarder, and will compete for that country. Short track speedskater Ahn Hyun-Soo was a triple gold medalist for South Korea in 2006 but is now a Russian citizen competing under the name Viktor Ahn.
Meanwhile, the Jamaican bobsled team is back, and Alpine skiers from Zimbabwe, the Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, India, Pakistan, Lebanon and Brazil are as well.
Whatever country they represent, the athletes will thankfully push our attention away from security, dual toilets and stray dogs to what is most important: the Olympics themselves. Over the next two weeks, they will provide us with enough stories that the collected works of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Pushkin will look thin by comparison.
Lindsey Vonn is not here but Lindsey Van is, competing for the U.S. in the very first women's ski jumping competition at the Olympics. World Cup champions Ted Ligety, Mikaela Shiffrin and five-time Olympian Bode Miller should more than make up for Vonn's absence.
Kikkan Randall could give the U.S. its first cross-country medal in 38 years and inspire Americans to hit the snow trails, while Shaun White and fellow snowboarders will prompt parents to instruct their kids "Don't ever try that!''
Ashley Wagner will try to justify her presence on the Olympic team as she, Gracie Gold and Edmunds try to skate their way onto the podium with Kim Yu-Na and Mao Asada. They and the other American skaters will try to bring home a medal in the new team competition.
Shani Davis and Heather Richardson will do their best to give non-Dutch speedskating fans reason to pop some Heinekens. Elana Meyers, Aja Evans, Steven Holcomb and Noelle Pikus-Pace will show there is far more reason to pay attention to the sliding sports than the media's fixation on Lolo Jones.
With NHL and KHL professionals, there will be no Miracle on Ice in hockey but the competition should be very intense, what with the enormous hopes and pressure on Russia's team.
And who knows, considering how extensive his reach has been in these Olympics, perhaps Vladimir Putin will insist on replacing Evgeni Plushenko and perform a free skate routine. Sans shirt, of course.
As for the security concerns?
"I haven't thought about it once,'' U.S. speedskater Brittany Bowe said. "It's nice not having TV. I haven't read the news or anything. Whether that's a good thing or bad, that's what I've chose to do. I haven't given it a thought. It's one more thing you don't need to worry about. I have enough to worry about on the track and the things I can control. That's something beyond my control and I'm not going to waste my time on it.''
That's the proper approach to the Olympics.
I woke up Friday morning somewhat concerned that someone had rummaged through my suitcase because the night before a lucky travel charm in my bag had been placed on my bed. Had a maid or someone else done that? Or more likely, had I simply forgotten I placed it there myself because I drank too many 30-ruble wines? Pretty soon I was thinking about the oppressive Putin regime I read about in Masha Gessen's disturbing biography, "The Man Without a Face.''
But then I went for an invigorating run with Julie Foudy on a beautiful promenade along the Black Sea that is just on the other side of the fence from our housing complex. The clear sky reflected beautifully off the sea while the morning sun spectacularly lit the nearby white-capped Caucasus Mountains. We came across a stray puppy so adorable I wondered whether I could fit him in my carry-on. And when we went back into the complex, we came across a dozen or so older Russian women in colorful folk costumes and gold teeth.
We danced and laughed with them and when we walked away, all my previous concerns had disappeared.
This is what the Olympics is all about. People from around the world, unable to speak the same language but uniting through the sheer joy of sport. We must focus on that joy in the next 17 days, not the possibility of terror. Put our fears aside and let our hearts soar as high as the $51 billion budget.