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Take a moment to remember what people were saying about the Sochi Games just days before they started.
Fears of terrorism. Anger over Russia’s anti-gay laws. Doubts about playing snow sports in a sub-tropical seaside resort. Mockery of the Olympic village’s incomplete construction. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Soviet-style insistence that nothing would go wrong.
Skeptics scoffed. But now that the Games are over, it seems that the old KGB man was right.
Yes, there were hiccups, inevitable for such a massive event. The springlike weather disrupted events. Halfpipes and ski courses required last-minute corrections. A whip-wielding Cossack confronted the anti-Putin group Pussy Riot. Stray dogs wandered all over the place.
But there were no significant security breaches, no violent attacks, no big gay-rights protests. The pre-Games griping about half-built hotels, broken elevators and brown drinking water went viral, but the problems were mostly fixed and forgotten.
Eclipsed by the Games themselves.
Which was the point.
The Olympics aim to highlight the purity of sport, to renew the promise that friendly international competition can rise above politics, and remind the world that we are all one big community. It’s an impossible ideal to live up to, with a global audience and bitter old rivalries, not to mention the dual specters of doping and game-fixing.
But the Sochi Games, in many aspects, came close.
Consider the host, a country with a deeply ingrained inferiority complex that is trying to overcome a reputation, deserved or not, of incompetence.
Russia spent $51 billion to build an Olympics complex on the coast of the Black Sea from scratch: ski and snowboard runs, sliding tracks, six arenas, highways, railways, hotels, restaurants. Organizers hoped to turn the modern-day Xanadu into a tourism resort, despite the Olympics’ long history of fallow former host sites.
Shedding old stereotypes
The events themselves ran smoothly, and there were no significant logistical issues within the park. The trains ran on time. Everyone got to where they needed to be.
“Now everyone can see that we are different from the stereotypes,” Dmitry Chernyshenko, who spearheaded the project, told the Associated Press. “We’re modern, we’re efficient and we welcome the world.”
The Games also reflected well on Putin, who used the Sochi Games as a way to boost his international persona. He was highly visible in Sochi, personally congratulating some of Russia’s medal winners and even dropping by the Team USA House. His Sochi budget, criticized as bloated and corrupt, may now set the standard for what's required of a modern, secure Games.
"What took decades in other parts of the world was achieved here in Sochi in just seven years," said IOC President Thomas Bach in declaring the games closed.
Olympic historian Robert Edelman said the Sochi Games may be the event that finally puts to rest the Soviet-era image of Russian obsolescence and ineptitude.
Edelman, who teaches at the University of California at San Diego, has spoken to Russian friends, many of them cynical old journalists, who have been delighted by the Games.
“It really has been without a hitch,” Edelman said.
Agony and victory
Russia’s hockey fans may not feel that way.
There is no bigger Winter Olympic sport than hockey, and the national team was expected, perhaps unrealistically, to win gold. But it was knocked out of competition early, a devastating letdown that included a gut-wrenching shootout loss to the Americans.
The distress was lightened by the home team's performance in figure skating, where it won five medals, including three golds. Legend Evgeni Plushenko and 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya led the Russians to gold in the first-ever team competition, in which the U.S. won bronze. Plushenko pulled out of the men’s competition with a back injury, and Lipnitskaya fell in her individual routines, but a new star, 17-year-old Adelina Sotnikova, filled the void.
American-born snowboard racer Vic Wild, who married a Russian snowboarder, moved to Moscow and joined his adopted country’s Olympic team out of frustration with a lack of U.S. support, won two golds, and was cheered by Americans and Russians alike.
Russia ended the Games with 33 total medals, including 13 golds, topping the overall medal race.
The United States, which won the overall medal count with a record 37 in Vancouver four years ago, fell short of that mark in Sochi: 28 total medals, including 9 golds, second in the standings.
Still, not shabby. The 28 medals were the U.S.'s third-highest total. The nine golds equaled the number it won in 2010 and 2006, and were one short of its biggest haul, in Salt Lake City in 2002.
A remarkable thing about America’s Sochi performance was that most of the medals did not come from the highly touted veterans who were expected to lead the way.
Some of America’s most clutch performances came from lesser known athletes in events that were recent additions to the Olympic program. The U.S. won 12 medals in freestyle skiing and snowboarding, including six golds.
The breakout stars included snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg, who won the inaugural slopestyle competition, and slopestyle skiers Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper, who swept the podium. Snowboarders Kaitlyn Farrington and Kelly Clark won gold and bronze in the women's halfpipe.
The biggest U.S. goats by far were the speedskating team, which failed to reach the podium in long-track events for the first time in 30 years. They were dominated by the Dutch, who won a record 23 long-track medals.
The U.S. men’s hockey team failed to win a medal. The women’s team won silver, losing to Canada in a heartbreaking overtime implosion.
There were other letdowns. Skier Lindsey Vonn, defending downhill champion, was sidelined with an injury. Bode Miller and Ted Ligety, considered multi-medal threats, won just one each. Snowboarder Shaun White tanked in the halfpipe, the event he’d dominated in the prior two Winter Games.
The U.S. was shut out in the individual men’s and women’s figure skating events, although it won bronze in the team competition.
'Very good Games'
One of America’s bright spots were ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who fulfilled every expectation of them and handily won gold.
Another American who lived up to the hype was 18-year-old Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who at 18 became the youngest woman to win slalom gold.
Olympic historian Bill Mallon said Sochi was a “very good Games for us” overall.
Anyone who expected the U.S. to beat its Vancouver mark was bend wildly unrealistic, he said.
But he pointed out an important caveat: America can no longer count on the new “extreme” sports to fuel its medal haul.
America may have owned those events in their infancies, but now that they’re part of the Olympics, other countries will continue investing heavily in them, Mallon said.
“Once a sport is in the Olympics, they start funding it and they start to get good at it,” Mallon said. “That will start happening in snowboarding and freestyle skiing.”
This new generation of stars will help define future Winter Games.
And future host countries, particularly those building a Games from nothing, may look at Sochi as an Olympic model.