I first fell in love with the Olympics in the summer of ’88. Each morning, after watching the events each night, my six-year-old self would run to consult the medal tables in the newspaper to see just how many golds the U.S.A. had won. Of course, it was never so much the sports themselves that drew me to the Games; it was the idea that the world was coming together in friendly competition.
Despite my obsession, the Olympics always seemed very far away (was Djibouti really a place?) and untouchable–certainly not something I could go and experience myself.
Twenty years later, I participated in my first Olympic Games–in Beijing–as a media liaison for the U.S. Olympic Committee. It was a dream come true and, to this day, the single most exciting thing I have ever worked on. Now in 2014, I’m volunteering with the Organizing Committee’s internal news bureau, otherwise known as the Olympic News Service.
My wife, daughter, and full-time job are more than 5,000 miles away. I’ll spend the next month sharing a tiny room with three strangers from Armenia, Vancouver, and L.A. Though I’ve been preparing for my trip for months, I didn’t quite know what to expect when I got on the ground. Now I’m here to help other Sochi-bound travelers get in the game.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Dress for Success
The Sochi Games are split into two different “clusters,” one on the coast where temperatures are in the 40s, the other in the mountains where snow is a common occurrence. Packing for these dual climates is a challenge, so layering is key.
It rains as often on the coast as it snows in the mountains, so I brought plenty of waterproof gear including boots, a warm parka, and touch-screen-friendly gloves. With lots of rain comes lots of mud, so if you’re traveling to Sochi, consider yourself warned.
Despite being called “the most compact Winter Games ever,” venues are still fairly spread out and it could take well over an hour to get from place to place. Spend time studying the clusters and develop a plan for traveling between venues. If you bought tickets and don’t have a spectator pass yet, be sure to get one now.
Also, it should be noted that none of the events are actually in the city of Sochi. The coastal cluster is based around Adler and the mountain cluster around Krasnaya Polyana. If you’re staying in downtown Sochi, you’re going to be spending a lot of time in transit.
There is an Olympic subculture of trading pins representing different sports and countries. Even if you have no intention of wheeling and dealing on the pin-trading circuit, be sure to bring something from home–be it pins, bubble gum, stickers, or magnets–that you can give away to the special people you meet.
You’re going to encounter a lot of Russians that will find you very interesting. Show your gratitude to that taxi driver or volunteer with a small gift. It will go a long way as you represent both yourself and your country abroad.
Learning to read Cyrillic sounds like it would be pretty intense. It’s not. The Cyrillic (or Russian) alphabet has a lot of similarities to our own and knowing the basics will be tremendously helpful–especially when you’re trying to pronounce places you need to find. Even if you can’t understand what you’re reading, I promise it’s worth your time. Here’s a useful guide I found.
On top of learning to pronounce the Cyrillic alphabet, be sure to learn some simple Russian phrases such as preevyet (hello), spaseeba (thank you), prasteete (excuse me) and da sveedaneeya (goodbye).
Bring an unlocked mobile phone with you and buy a Russian SIM card when you arrive. They are widely available at kiosks marked with MegaFon and cost next to nothing. Having one will prove invaluable when you find yourself wanting to call a taxi, make reservations, or check into an activity or event. Once you have a SIM card, make friends with a Russian speaker and get their phone number. If you find yourself in a jam, you can call and have them translate for you. I couldn’t even guess how many times my new Chinese friends saved me in Beijing.
My flight to Sochi was rerouted due to bad weather and I ended up arriving six hours late. My taxi driver had no idea where I was telling him to take me. The Wi-Fi here is spotty.
The only predictable thing about Russia is how unpredictable it will be. No matter how out of control things may seem, they have a remarkable way of always working out. The key to keeping your sanity is to have a lot of patience and learn to laugh off things that would drive you crazy at home.
Attending the Olympics is the experience of a lifetime. Despite all the negative news, there’s no doubt that Russia is going to put on a great Games. Be as prepared as possible, but learn to go with the flow. If you find yourself up at the Sanki Sliding Center, be sure to send a tweet my way!
David DiGregorio is a travel industry professional, co-editor of the travel blog Style Hi Club, and author of How to Work in Travel. His adventures have taken him to 70 different countries, often with his family in tow. Follow David on Twitter @Darodi.