Rooting for Russia’s Games from Des Plaines

Written By By MARLEN GARCIA Posted: 03/17/2014, 11:34am

Nationalistic pride, like the intangible love of country sweeping through Russia during the Olympics, has a tendency to travel across land and water.

Some of it seeps in while Russians cheer for their athletes. The rest comes in knowing their countrymen, not only the competitors but locals in Sochi who work tirelessly and humbly behind the scenes, are putting on a pretty good show, springlike temperatures and all.

“I’m glad it’s finally being viewed in a positive light,” the Very Rev. Andre Papkov of Holy Virgin Protection Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church in Des Plaines, said of his country.

Russia caught a bad rap in the months leading up to the Olympics for myriad reasons, including the politics of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s not new for host countries to come under scrutiny. The 2004 Summer Games in Athens were considered vulnerable to terrorism that thankfully never materialized.

Athens officials were peppered with questions about the disappearance of stray dogs and cats that typically roamed the streets. Nobody really believed they went away to dog and cat summer camps, as Greek officials said.

Before the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, China’s human-rights abuses received as much coverage as the unprecedented cool factor of its track stadium and cube-shaped swimming venue. There, too, there were stories of displaced residents who paid steeply to have their city showcased globally in faux light.

Combine all the criticism heaped on Athens as well as Beijing, add reports of bribery, corruption and unfinished construction projects, and you get the stories of Sochi. Already seen in the U.S. as an untrustworthy autocratic ex-KGB agent, it became easier to pile on Putin when he launched an anti-gay campaign at the same time gays and lesbians were gaining long overdue rights in the U.S.

But I was a bit ashamed when American journalists slammed their accommodations in Sochi on social media before the Games. It’s one thing to note tap water is mustard yellow and dangerous to drink, quite another to complain of a missing wastebasket or the absence of a sofa in a two-room suite, especially as stories abound of residents who were forced out of their homes to make way for the Games.

It was heartening to read then in the New York Times that even some residents displaced by the Games, along with critics of the $50 billion tab and construction woes, are taking a measure of pride in the achievements of their people and the beauty of their country.

“There are many people who take pride in the cultural heritage and in Russia as an ethnic group,” Papkov said of Russians and Russian Americans here. “It was an impressive opening and it’s impressive the way the host country did it even with the prophecy of doomsday.”

Papkov said he watches with a dilemma on his hands.

“You almost have a split loyalty,” he said. “You want Americans to excel and you want your blood brothers to excel.”

Being a religious man, he doesn’t count gold medals. He worries about terrorist threats, no matter how well the Games are going.

“This situation is not so simple,” he said. “Don’t forget there is another week. We pray that there is no bloodshed. The world doesn’t need bloodshed.”


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