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Scribing from Sochi: Bill Hancock from inside the Olympics, Part 1

02/06/2014 6:46 PM

02/06/2014 6:46 PM

Bill Hancock of Prairie Village is better known as executive director of the College Football Playoff.

And for his same role with its approximate predecessor, the Bowl Championship Series.

And for running the NCAA Tournament before that.

And, locally, for his multiple roles with the old Big Eight Conference.

But through all those career moves, Hancock has enjoyed a near-constant: volunteering to help with the United States Olympic Committee starting in 1984.

Here’s why:

“There’s nothing else like the Olympics. It’s a big ole county fair,” he said by email from Sochi earlier this week. “The magic is the young people from all over the world coming together to enjoy a peaceful time together. Winning is almost always secondary to the experience. I’m honored and grateful to be able to play a tiny little part in it.”

The scenes also provide Hancock, once editor of the family newspaper, the Hobart (Okla.) Democrat-Chief, a chance to exercise the creative outlet of sending daily email dispatches to friends and colleagues.

His perspectives offer a fascinating glimpse at and behind the scenes in Russia, and it’s easy to hear Hancock’s upbeat, gracious and folksy voice against the exotic backdrop.

He began writing virtually upon arrival last weekend.

So let’s get caught up with some excerpts from the week behind and pick up from there as the Sochi Games get underway officially with the opening ceremonies on Friday.

Saturday, Feb. 1

We’re in Russia. I pinched myself. Russia. Khrushchev, Tchaikovsky, Zhavago, Rachmaninoff, and other names I can’t spell. …

The sun on the snowy mountains this morning was spectacular. Like Denver and Salt Lake City only even more beautiful.

A few words about the Chistye Prudy (CHEESE-tee-uh) apartments:

Our room is spacious. Actually “rooms,” because we have a big bedroom and a parlor. There’s a TV which didn’t work today, but I don’t think it matters. There’s no shower curtain nor rod. Some other rooms have ’em. So water “went everywhere,” said (Hancock’s wife) Nicki. We’ll ask at the front desk. But we (have) a tub and a hand-held shower head.

I intend to learn one Russian word every day. Today’s was really important: “spasibo,” which is the best word of all: “thank you.” Every time I said it, the Russian person just grinned and grinned. (Maybe the Russian was thinking, “this idiot only knows one word” but I don’t care. To make friend(s) in some other country, just walk around saying “thank you” for no particular reason….

These people are trying SO hard. What a privilege to be here …

Sunday, Feb. 2

A rainbow was in the western sky this morning. Awesome!!!! The pot of gold was in the athletes’ village. That’s symbolism if I ever saw it.

Yes there’s mud here. Yes, some hotels are not ready. Yes, electrical lines are visibly coming out of the ground. But it’s like you’re giving a dinner party at 5 p.m. and the guests all arrive at 2 and you’re now finished vacuuming.

Fact is, the venues are beautiful — particularly at night with the fantastic lighting — and the people are really trying to make their guests happy. …

You have no doubt read about the hotel situation. I thought I had it bad with no shower curtain until I heard about the people with no beds …

Monday, Feb. 3 …

The bus route passes a residential area. Some houses remind me of Peru and Ecuador, waiting for another story or another wing. I’ve been watching one wooden shack, half-painted.

The language barrier is huge. Like staging the BCS championship game at the Rose Bowl stadium, and all of the fans, teams, coaches and journalists speak only Kiowa. And you want to be nice to them. And you have searched the world to find everyone who speaks Kiowa and given them the out-front jobs and told them to smile and do their best. …

I walked to a huge store outside the bubble today. You have two choices at the Olympics: stay in the antiseptic but wonderful tent where we work and where athletes live and compete.

Or occasionally pop out to see the city. As much as I love the people and excitement inside, there’s nothing like being with real people. This sunny day was perfect for a walk.

The store was a little over a mile away. I walked outside the security checkpoint. Past about 101,000 buses in a lot the size of Tennessee. … Plenty of other people were also walking. I overheard no conversation in English. 

The two-story store could best be described as Target, Walmart and the Food King all blasted together. It had the most bottles of alcohol — mostly vodka but also brown alcohol — I have ever seen in one place. …

Oh, the store did have USA food. We are exporting sugar: Coke, Pepsi, 7-Up, Kit-Kat, M’s, Snickers. Russian folks were plucking them off the shelves.

I loaded my backpack and walked back to the (Main Press Center), dreaming of baseball. I saw one police officer, standing at a busy corner. I understand Olympic security is an obsession at home, in Washington and in Waurika, Okla. Here, we don’t give much thought to it. The police are our friends.

Good grief. I’ve been here a couple of days and have yet to hear Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. But people don’t just stand on street corners whistling great Russian music. Just like a Russian visitor might be bummed after being in Oklahoma for a week without hearing “Pore Jud is Daid.”

Tuesday, Feb. 4

Hooray! We did get clean towels! Our trash did get emptied! We will never get a shower curtain, but I am getting less water on the floor every day…

Nicki has the Greatest Invention Known to Mankind: a translation app. She says something into her mobile phone, presses a button, and voila! The phone plays it back in Russian … It wouldn’t work for the Gettysburg Address, but perfect for “please go to the mountain village and pick up the ski jumpers and bring them to the Main Press Center.” …

Volunteer du jour: Galina, 19, volunteering at transportation help desk. Nicki needed to tell the Valeriy the Tall (one of our drivers) to go to the … He had never been there before. It was like telling a Martian how to get to Arthur Bryant’s to pick up a full slab and take it to Overland Park by way of KCI. So Nicki told Galina the plan, and she wrote it all out (in Russian, of course) for Valeriy. It was amazing.

Galina had spent a year as an exchange student in Rocky Mount, N.C. “It was the most amazing year of my life. The family read with me, and we went to the Colonial place … what is it called? Yes, Williamsburg! Then I was in an essay contest to tell how I would use my time in America when I got back home.

“We went to the main court — what is it called? Yes, the Supreme Court. They have a little balcony where you can go to watch. It was amazing. And then I met a senator from North Carolina. Oh, God! Oh, God! (She clutched her chest; I thought she was going to cry. I thought I was going to cry, myself.)”

It was as if Galina had met the Queen, or the President, or Roy Williams…

Another writer was dismayed because she has not seen any security people carrying guns. “You see guns at the BCS championship game, but not here? How can that be?” This is the world of journalism: if there was a scowling jack-booted Drago on every corner, reporters would shout, “see, we told you our lives were in danger! Look at all those guns!!!” …

At security, we hold our credential in front of a scanner. Our photo pops up on the other side and a security worker checks to see if we’re who we’re supposed to be. After about two seconds, a little “walkie man” flashes. Then we place our parkas, credentials and bags in a bin, put the bin on a conveyer belt, airport-style, and walk through a scanner. It always goes off when I pass, because of my hip. I pat it, the security person scans it, and I go happily along.

Then I made a rookie mistake: I grabbed my parka and credential from the bin and walked into the MPC, up the escalator and into the shiny marble great hall. I enjoy watching a video showing construction of the venues in the mountains. It was then that I realized I had left my backpack at the security station.

I dashed back, breathless. I was pretty sure they had blown up my bag as a suspicious package — rightly so — and that I would deservedly be without computer and sunglasses and granola for the rest of the Olympics.

I went in the “exit” door and began to look around.

A security man came up to me and said, “Mr. William Hancock? You come here.” 

I spied my bag on a little table along with a couple of other things. … “Do not forget,” he said.

“I promise. Spasibo. Spasibo. Spasibo.” He didn’t smile. I didn’t warrant a smile. I had earned Siberia and yet received a pass. This time. It was a total rookie mistake. Or a total distracted 63-year-old mistake. Believe me, I won’t forget again….

Wednesday, Feb. 5

About 10:30 last night, we heard explosions outside Chistye Prudy. Oh, my goodness. Well, it was fireworks from the second rehearsal of the opening ceremony.

Question from Arkansas: “Story in today’s paper that huge numbers of stray dogs are roaming the various venues, and that a Russian company has been hired to round them up and “eliminate the problem” so that our country “won’t be embarrassed” … Any truth?”

Answer from Sochi: I have heard this rumor. Good grief. I have seen maybe three dogs on the streets. They’ve been friendly…

Question from North Carolina: Are they covering Signing Day over there? (Answer: Clearly their priorities are misplaced.)

Note from Washington, D.C.: They were reporting on radio today that the water is brown. I am sure you are drinking bottled water, but the shower could get interesting. (Response: Good grief. I have seen NO brown water.)

We are indeed drinking and brushing our teeth in bottled water, as we did in Beijing and Seoul and Mexico and, well, you get the picture. I did see a video of brown water coming out of pipes.

Daily reminder: it’s 10 hours different from Central time. So when it’s 10 a.m. in Knob Noster, it’s 8 p.m. in Sochi.

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