Friday, July 13, 2007

A Russian version


Victory for Sochi

The 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi. In the second round of voting in Guatemala City yesterday, the Russian bid received four more votes than its rival, the South Korean city of Pyeongchang. After celebrating with the members of the Russian delegation in Guatemala, Kommersant special correspondent Andrei Kolesnikov explains whose votes brought Sochi victory.
"The Main Thing Is To Get To the Second Round"

Things happened fast. After the presentation of the Russian bid, the members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) left the room for a short break, during which the Russian delegation was not allowed to approach them. Not that anyone wanted to.

"The main thing," said Svetlana Zhurova, a Russian gold medalist in ice skating at the Games in Turin, "is to get to the second round… There Europe will help us. Europe will vote for Europe!"

Now the only question was exactly how Russia can be considered Europe. Every member of the IOC would have to figure that out for themselves.

The South Korean presentation began. Alberto Tomba, a retired downhill skiing champion from Italy, served as the star of the show, exclaiming at the Korean snow and going into raptures over the service in the double hotel rooms in the Olympic village. Then a map of Asia, on which only a handful of countries besides Korea, Japan, and China were labeled, appeared on the screen. The whole of Central Asia was a nameless void on the map…neither Turkmenistan, nor Kazakhstan, nor Uzbekistan were pictured.

The members of the Russian bid delegation gathered around one of the monitors in the press center.

"Why didn't they include us in Asia?" asked Russian deputy prime minister Alexander Zhukov. "Well, whatever. But the Asians? By the way, did you see their Moldovan boy?!"

The Korean presentation included a boy, or more accurately, a young man, who really was from Moldova. The Korean woman emceeing the presentation told everyone that a coach had taught the Moldovan boy how to ski and that now he dreams of winning the Olympic gold. And he realizes that he will be able to achieve his goal only if the Olympic Games are held in South Korea.

The boy nodded dutifully. Why he won't be able to win the Olympic gold in Sochi is obvious: he was the hero of the Korean presentation.

"And now they're rolling out the topic of the reunification of the two Koreas," said Alexander Zhukov, pointing to the monitor. "And they're mentioning how they lost last time by three votes…"

"Well, that's why they lost, because they played up that topic," said Svetlana Zhukova scornfully.

On the screen, an old South Korean woman was saying that she had last seen her North Korean son 50 years ago and that if the Olympics are held in Korea, she will have a chance to see him again.

"And they're always having kids singing in their ads," said Alexander Zhukov, with a note of condemnation in his voice. "We had way less singing in ours."

I recalled that there had been no singing children at all in the Austrian presentation. That was one of its main pluses.

Overall, the Austrian presentation was a cheerful and commendable affair. The Austrians behaved as though they were preparing themselves to lose proudly, with their heads held high.

After the Korean presentation, I was walking in the corridor when I caught sight of three-time Olympic figure-skating champion Irina Rodnina and Russian Transportation Minister Igor Levitin.

"Did you see the Moldovan boy?" asked Ms. Rodnina indignantly. "And he was probably born in the USSR! He's not that much of a boy anymore!"

"Anyone who says that's a girl will have to deal with me first," corrected Igor Levitin.

At that moment, some members of the Korean delegation passed by.

"Oh look, it's the Moldovan boy! Large as life! Come here, little boy!" cried Iriina Rodnina.

The young man was actually somewhere between 18 and 20 years old (definitely old enough to have been born in the USSR). As soon as he noticed us, he shrank close to the opposite wall of the corridor and skulked off towards the exit.

Meanwhile, on the second floor of the hotel the most dramatic part of this story was already getting underway as the members of the IOC entered the room to finally cast their votes. If any country won more than 50% of the vote, it would win in the first round. This wasn't likely and was the least desirable scenario for the Russian bid: Sochi would definitely lose in that case.

The people entering the room were followed by the sad – or, more accurately, absent – gaze of Dmitry Chernyshenko, the head of the Sochi 2014 bid committee. He himself was forbidden by the rules of the competition from entering the room.

In the room, IOC president, a Frenchman named Jacques Rogge, told everyone that the first round of voting would take place using electronic ballots that had several numbered buttons, one for each city. Pyeongchang was assigned number 4, Salzburg was number 3, and Sochi was number 5.

The voting was quick, and short work was made of the Austrians. It later emerged that Salzburg had received 25 votes, Sochi 34, and Pyeongchang 36.

At that moment, however, no one knew how many votes each candidate had received. All that was announced was that Salzburg was out, meaning that Sochi had made it to the second round.

And right there, without a break, the second round of voting began. At one point it was interrupted when one of the IOC members apparently had an attack of nerves and broke one of the voting buttons.

The results of the second round of voting were not due to be announced until two hours later, but the radical change that the first round wrought in the mood of the Russian section of the press center, which five minutes earlier couldn't even imagine that Sochi would get higher than third place, was amazing.

"Yeah, it's too bad that the Winter Olympics will be in Sochi," I overheard someone say. "That means that Piter (St. Petersburg) won't get the Summer Games…"

In other words, people were absolutely positive that by this time, nothing was impossible for Russia.

In actuality, however, the situation was far from being so clear. The votes that had previously gone to the Austrians were not guaranteed to transfer automatically to Sochi. They would have to be dragged over to the Russian side.

The members of the IOC who had been unable to deliver victory for Salzburg would have to be convinced to bring home victory for Sochi. But they, as it turned out, were unsure both of themselves and of Sochi. And there were no more convincing arguments.

"No One Said a Single Word of Encouragement! Unprofessionals!"

But by the time when the members of the IOC moved over to the Intercontinental Hotel to pronounce the final sentence, some clarity had come into the situation. Someone from the IOC had admitted to his Russian colleagues that it would be better to have the Olympics in Sochi than in Korea. Near the entrance to the hotel some volunteers, seeing my badge, had already begged me to give them a Sochi pin in exchange for a Guatemala pin or even two Guatemala pins. The point of this exchange was clear. No one was interested in Pyeongchang pins anymore, which were everywhere, like dirt in Guatemala City. Sochi pins, on the other hand, were like dirt in Salzburg: nowhere to be found.

In the lobby of the Intercontinental stood IOC vice president Vitaly Smirnov. I asked him whether Sochi would win.

"I said so yesterday on television," answered Mr. Smirnov testily.

"Well, so what?" I said. "Mr. Zhukov also said that yesterday at the briefing. It's a tactic. Everybody does it."

"What kind of tactic?!" objected Mr. Smirnov. "You journalists, you have no faith that we're going to win! I've plowed through a huge pile of your newspapers! No one said a single word of encouragement! Not a single one! Unprofessionals! But we knew, we were working!"

Mr. Smirnov had apparently already decided who was the professional around here, and there was only one: himself.

"Don't you think that this is basically the president's achievement?" a female Russian journalist asked him.

"The president told me: 'You've done good work!'" he roared.

Mr. Smirnov was clearly trying to wield this affirmation against the unprofessional journalists who dared, there at the very heart of the IOC, to annoy him with their unprofessional questions. He remained distracted after that for several minutes, presumably entertained by his vengeful thoughts against a world so thickly populated with unprofessional journalists who two years ago were incapable of appreciating the full epic grandeur of Sochi's bid.

And then, as the room teemed with the bedraggled Austrians and the Korean delegation, whose members carried a rolled-up national flag (and who were meekly accompanied by the Moldovan boy), and, I suddenly discovered several subtle hints that were impossible to ignore. First of all, the music in one of the IOC video clips strongly resembled the music of the Russian national anthem. Secondly, several dozen photojournalists were suddenly swarming around the Russian delegation, while only four people had gathered around the Koreans.

Jacques Rogge got up on stage and began to talk about where Sochi is located. That was also a good sign, although then he also mentioned the location of Pyeongchang. Both remarks appeared to evoke genuine interest from the members of the IOC. Two Korean journalists standing near me suddenly began to congratulate each other on camera, while the members of our delegation grabbed each other's hands and held on tightly.

Jacques Rogge, like always, was in no hurry to announce the final results of the voting, and I mentally sympathized with my fellow Russians, imagining how their palms must be sweating under this assault on their nerves.

Finally a young Guatemalan girl brought Mr. Rogge a large envelope on a cushion.

The IOC president seized the envelope with uncharacteristic swiftness, ripped it open, and said one word: "Sochi."

"We're All Just So Happy Here"

The members of the Russian delegation celebrated as though they had never even considered winning. They had a right to be glad: Sochi had been the outsider in this crazy race from the very beginning. Throughout the hotel's lobby, the fever of hugging and kissing was contagious.

Only Vladimir Kozhin, a member of the Russian presidential administration, attempted to maintain some semblance of calm.

"It turns out that the world has changed," he mumbled. "Who would have thought… And that politics doesn't decide everything? Who would have thought?!"

"Yes, giving the (Winter) Olympics to a country that hasn't had them yet! This is a challenge…for us!" said Mikhail Kusnirovich, the head of the Russian company Bosco, which makes the official uniforms for the Russian delegation.

Mr. Chernyshenko brought over a memo from the IOC, from which it emerged that Sochi had received 51 votes to Pyeongchang's 47, meaning that Sochi had picked up 14 of the votes that had gone to Salzburg in the first round. Strangely enough, I noticed, most of them came from Americans.

Alexander Zhukov's cell phone rang. It was Vladimir Putin, calling from on board his jet. I almost expected him to turn his plane around over the ocean when he heard the news.

"Yes!" said Mr. Zhukov. "Yes! Thank you! We're all just so happy here! There hasn't been a moment like this in a long time!"

He was being modest. The new Russia has never had a moment like this. This was a clean and clear victory that nothing could mar.

"I think the decisive contribution was made this morning, Vladimir Vladimirovich!" said Alexander Zhukov into the phone, and I assume he meant the presentation by the Russian bid committee.

Mr. Putin then apparently asked to be put through to Jacques Rogge, while around Mr. Zhukov the party continued.

The Main Thing Now Is To Not Drop the Ball

At the press conference afterwards, the members of the Russian bid committee, the IOC, and several Russian officials faced several questions that gave both them and me pause. An American journalist asked Mr. Rogge how the Olympics could be given to a country that violates human rights and kills journalists.

Mr. Rogge replied that the IOC is not involved in politics, and then fell silent.

After a few moments, Mr. Chernyshenko managed a reply. "We are still a young democracy," he said. "The choice of Sochi means that Russia will become even better integrated into the international community, that it will be more strongly oriented towards the outside world…"

He could have sounded more certain as he said this. The young journalist smiled condescendingly.

Soon, however, the grilling was over, and the party at the Russia House in Guatemala City resumed. And continued...

In Russian

No comments: