“I have to do a TV broadcast now, can I call you back in maybe an hour?” Angela Stent, the director of the Russian studies department at Georgetown University, said when she picked up the phone. An hour later she apologized again. “I’m afraid I’ll have to call you back.”
For Ms. Stent and other professional Russia watchers, the phone has been ringing off the hook since Ukraine became a geopolitical focal point. “It’s kind of a reunion,” she said. “Everyone comes out of the woodwork.”
Like many other big countries, the USA has a kind of sports embassy on the grounds of the Olympic Park in Sochi. Calling it an embassy is a little deceiving, though, as USA house is really a place to hang out, get free American-ish food (the Russian version of a quesadilla), drink Budweiser, and watch the feed of American Olympians competing. It feels like a sports bar where everyone is cheering for your team. Since Day One of the Olympics, I have been there nearly every day.
The most unlikely of visitors came in last Friday. First I noticed a group of burly, suit-wearing Russians with earpieces standing outside the House. Then, when I walked in, no less that six people took my photo. I would soon realize that the anticipation of this special visitor had people so trigger happy that they were photographing everyone who entered in order to not miss catching the big fish.
I asked some people who worked at the house what was going on, and they gave me vague answers. I decided to post up in the front to see who this guest of honor would be. My boyfriend looked at me and said “Do you think it could be?” Knowing whom he meant, I said “No way, he would never come here.” I was wrong.
And there he was, the man himself, the king of Sochi, Mr. Vladimir Putin, strolling right into USA House
with no less than a twenty-person security detail, dwarfing the strong man of petite stature (he’s 5’7”). I had heard others speak about the gravitas of his person, and sure enough, he had every eye in the house on him.
This was the man who is single handedly responsible for staging an Olympic Games in the warmest, poorest and most geopolitically fraught region of Russia, for upwards of $50 billion. Still, you couldn’t tell if his power came from his stature, or vice versa.
He stayed for about twenty minutes, chatting with the head of the United States Olympic Committee, Scott Blackmun and Chairman Larry Probst as a camera crew filmed the whole thing.
— Saree Kayne for KCRW (Photo above: President Vladimir Putin enters the room. The author’s boyfriend managed to snap this photo of Putin the foreground and the author, blurry, to the far left)
The pressure on the men to win an independent Russia’s first gold medal on home soil was greater than anything faced by the United States in 2002 or Canada in 2010.
“Our fans are a little bit tougher, I think,” Sergei Fedorov, a forward on the 1998 and 2002 Olympic teams, had said recently. “They don’t like when the national team loses.”