Michelle Kaufman: Sochi Olympics still special despite security concerns

Now that the 2014 Winter Olympics are over, it’s time to let the world in on a little secret: The reason there were no terrorist attacks, and that athletes and visitors are heading home safely is not entirely because the Russian security forces did a fabulous job — although they did.

The real reason is because of the protective bracelet my mother gave me before the trip. You see, I am of Cuban-Jewish descent (we call ourselves “Jewbans’’) and both cultures hang on to superstitions such as “Evil Eye.’’ In Hebrew, “Ayin ha’ra’’ and in Spanish, “Mal de Ojo.’’ The bracelet I wore is meant to ward off evil energy, and apparently, it did, because I am coming home in a much better mood than I left.

Confession: I was terrified to attend these Olympics. Although I had covered the 12 previous Olympics and loved every one of them, this one scared me because of direct threats and because every person I know, upon hearing I was going to Sochi, said things like, “Be safe’’ and “I’ll pray for you,’’ as if I were a soldier going off to war. For the first time in my 28-year career, I briefly considered backing out of an assignment.

That would have been a terrible mistake.

I would have missed a mind-clearing walk along the pebbled beach of the Black Sea. I wouldn’t have seen the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus Mountains, or the playful dolphins swimming in the sea. Bonus: My walk led me to the fenced border of Georgia. It’s not every day you walk to a national border.

I would have missed out on the media dorm karaoke bar, where journalists from all over the world gathered and cheered each other on no matter the language or song selection.

I never would have encountered a pack of beautiful, friendly stray dogs at 2:30 a.m. as I raced to catch the final gondola in the mountains after a late-night assignment.

Most every evening ended on a standing-room-only 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. media bus, tired journalists meeting deadlines all over the world.

I would have missed being in the building for the thrilling women’s gold-medal hockey game, the mesmerizing first-week performances by Russian 15-year-old figure skater Julia Lipnitskaya, and the breathtaking short program of South Korean Kim Yuna.

I wouldn’t have been there for the historic inaugural women’s ski jump. I wouldn’t have found myself at the Sochi Airport at 4 a.m. Sunday, having a delightful conversation with the family and friends of Dutch speedskater Ireen Wust, who won two gold medals and three silvers.

I never would have met Sasha, Vlad and Igor, the very friendly operators of Shaibu Shaibu (Puck Puck), a 24-hour snack bar in the lobby of my media dorm. Although their English was limited, they are fascinated with American sports and happen to love the Miami Heat.

I never would have tasted borscht and stuffed cabbage as they are meant to be made, or Pirozhki (meat and potato pies), or pelmeni (dumplings). I did cave in and have McDonald’s on Day 11. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

Yes, Sochi had its problems. The media housing was not ready when we arrived, and by not ready, I don’t mean the rooms were not made up. I mean, the rooms were not made, as in they were still installing plumbing, doorknobs, and lamps.

I waited six hours to check in to my not-quite-completed room A few days later, they installed a shower curtain. A few days later, a TV appeared. Just Saturday, a day before checkout, they installed a phone. Perhaps the closet rod and shelves will show up after I’m gone. The bathroom had a strange stench and water dripping from the walls.

But the Russian hosts tried their best. The volunteers couldn’t have been nicer. Buses were on schedule. Venues were state-of-the-art.

Dancers and musicians in traditional Russian costumes enthusiastically performed on small stages throughout the Games, even when nobody stopped to watch. Sweet women sold nesting dolls and crafts from booths, and seemed genuinely touched if you bought even the smallest trinket.

It wasn’t my favorite Olympics. But it was special in its own way. And, like a veteran sportswriter friend reminded me, “Covering the Olympics is like giving birth. When you get home, you remember only the good stuff.’’

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