A Missive From 3+ Years Covering the Russian Doping Scandal

FasterSkier’s Alex Kochon, Nat Herz, and the author (Chelsea Little) at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Little did we know what was going on behind the scenes of those Games. Looking back at our coverage of the 2014 Olympics, I’m very proud of the work we did. But I’m not too proud to say that while we thought we had a realistic understanding of international sports governance, we were still naive to its incredible inertia.

The following is an editorial I wrote for FasterSkier.com. As always, head there for more news and reporting about cross-country skiing and biathlon.

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Last week, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) cleared 28 Russian athletes of doping charges. Many people seemed shocked by this development.

The athletes had been disqualified from the 2014 Games by an International Olympic Committee (IOC) Commission. This was after more than 18 months of buildup in which the world learnt of systematic manipulation of the anti-doping process by the Russian state security apparatus at those Olympics.

I was both shocked, and not shocked. When all these athletes had been disqualified by the IOC and handed lifetime bans from Olympic competition, I knew in my heart of hearts that it would be undone (I’ll explain why below). But I hadn’t, somehow, put any thought into how exactly that would come to pass. So on one level, I was surprised, even if on another level I wasn’t.

When the news broke, I had written a profanity-laced all-caps message on our company Slack channel. On Twitter, I wrote, “I am so tired. That means that they have won.” That’s about all I could muster.

“I’m sure you are extremely disappointed by the CAS ruling,” one member of my extended family wrote in an email, knowing how many nights and weekends I had spent covering this story, how many hours and days of my personal life I had erased to chase it, because doing so does not pay the bills if you work for a cross-country ski website in America.

And I was disappointed.

I had thought that those nights and weekends would help make a better sporting world, help bring cheating to light, help hold the powers that be in sport accountable and call on them to do a little better.

But it felt like all that work had accomplished nothing, not changed a single thing to make nordic sports more fair.

I can only imagine how the athletes felt. The ones who found out that they would not be receiving medals after all, medals that they felt had been stolen from them by cheaters, medals that they had been slated to finally receive but now would never see.

I can only imagine.

More than anything, I was disappointed because I didn’t understand. I’m an analyst. No analysis I could do would explain to me just what had happened because CAS did not release a reasoned argument for their decision, which, as USADA General Cousel Bill Bock pointed out, is ludicrous. So at the moment we don’t know why these athletes were cleared; we only have speculation and hearsay.

But I had read previous CAS decisions, including the one partially upholding cross-country skier Alexander Legkov’s provisional suspension by the International Ski Federation.

In that decision, an arbitration panel wrote that they trusted the statements of whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov and investigator Richard McLaren.

That testimony that is widely speculated to have been found untrustworthy by the arbitration panel which more recently cleared the athletes.

There is a difference between provisional suspensions and rule violations, and maybe that’s the root cause (or maybe it’s not; one day we will find out).

But if two different arbitration panels can come to two completely different conclusions about whether evidence is trustworthy, then what is the point of a “high court” of arbitration? That’s disappointing.

On the other hand, maybe the new panel did believe that the whistleblower testimony was true, but that witness statements alone are not enough to prove a doping violation. We’ll set aside for a moment all the forensic evidence [see footnote 1].

If that’s the case, it’s even more disappointing. It means that all of the rhetoric over the last few years about putting more resources into investigations will not actually result in cleaner sport, unless there is a positive test or the presence of drugs or medical equipment (see: Austrian skier Wurm, Russian skier Pankratov).

It would mean that the World Anti-Doping Agency’s new “secure digital platform” for whistleblowing — and statements by athletes and doctors and team staff — are all useless to anti-doping unless they are followed by physical evidence of prohibited substances or methods.

But we don’t know the panel’s reasoning. This is all just speculation.

I was tired and disappointed because my job as a journalist is to take complicated things, and make them make sense to our readers.

Here, there was nothing to work with. There was nothing to explain.

Or was there?

Here’s my analysis.

Armchair commentators have said that someone at CAS must have been paid off. Olympic observers have noted that while Russia appealed the choice or arbitrators by the IOC, the IOC apparently did not appeal Russia’s choice. So maybe the panel really was biased. That’s one storyline.

A second suggested storyline is that the IOC set up the cases to fail, so that it would look like they tried to do something heroic, but in the end nothing would change.

To some extent, that is absolutely the case. Lifetime bans for doping have been attempted by the IOC before. Every time, they have been overturned. There was a zero percent chance it would work this time, either.

Did the IOC go further than that in “set up to fail”? Both storylines may be true. Neither may be true. But each of these storylines is far too myopic in their attempts to explain what happened with this CAS decision.

The reason that, in my heart of hearts, I knew that things would turn out just fine for most of these seemingly disqualified athletes, is that far more than CAS is broken [2].

Broken would imply that at some point the system worked. When was that, again?

This scandal has been going on for years. And in both it and other, non-Russia-related doping scandals, organizations have dragged their feet at every turn. There is no political will to keep sport clean. Ensuring clean sport would be hard. Nobody wants to do hard work. Universally, these organizations just want to run sporting events and for fans to be happy.

“We need to stop pretending sport is clean,” International Ski Federation (FIS) President Gian Franco Kasper [3] famously told New York Times reporter Rebecca Ruiz. “It’s a noble principle, but in practice? It’s entertainment. It’s drama.”

People were mad when Kasper said this, but it was an especially revealing comment. Maybe it is a testament to our optimism that we quickly moved on, focusing on how we would try to “solve” the problem of doping.

There have been individuals and groups who have worked passionately to uncover the truth, and done an admirable job. Beckie Scott at WADA [4] is one who comes to mind. But their work is always prevented from reaching its logical conclusion.

Let’s first look at the IOC, which has deservedly gotten a bad rap for dragging its investigations out for as long as seems humanly possible.

The IOC has certainly not put the resources or good-faith effort into looking under every stone, or doing so quickly. That’s how we got the first Sochi disqualifications – like Legkov’s – being announced in November of 2017. Most of the criticism leveled at the organization on this front is absolutely justified.

In all the time between May 2016, when the Sochi scandal was first broken by the New York Times, and November 2017, the IOC did very little. The decision banning Legkov relied mostly on the same evidence that had been in the McLaren Report.

The IOC Commission asked new experts to revisit the issues of scratches on sample bottles and salt content of urine samples. Basically, they repeated a lot of work which had already been done, expanding it to a larger number of samples but taking longer to do so by insisting on using different experts, who nonetheless came to the same conclusions.

For Legkov, all of this resulted in the same evidence that had been in the McLaren Report: that Legkov’s sample bottle from after the 50 k, which he had won, showed signs of being tampered with.

Sure, the IOC Commission got testimony from Rodchenkov. But that only at the last minute, perhaps because they were publicly shamed when it was revealed that they hadn’t contacted him.

It’s fair to criticize the IOC for its anemic investigation, but this is not just an IOC problem, just like the disqualifications being overturned is not really a CAS problem.

Look further. Since the McLaren Report, few other governing bodies have been doing better.

78 anti-doping samples belonging to biathletes are referred to in the McLaren Report. The International Biathlon Union (IBU) has not suspended any of the 38 athletes, that we are aware of, other than those who were suspended by the IOC. In fact, they have explicitly said that they would not investigate 22 of those 38.

“We like to play coy, like the cat wagging its tail when the mouse runs in front,” IBU Vice President for Medical Issues Jim Carrabre told me back at the 2014 Olympics, in an interview that led to the IBU’s media chief calling me into his office at the press center and dressing me down for talking about things that he would rather journalists didn’t ask his organization’s board members.

“It goes by once or twice, and then the third time it gets bitten,” Carrabre said at the time.

He was referring to blood profiles, a topic that has recently gained prominence.

For years I have been told by various people that the IBU has cases in the works, that soon I will hear about them, that they know some people are doping and are about to catch them.

I don’t doubt that Carrabre is a true believer in the anti-doping fight. He gets pretty fired up about things, as does fellow Executive Board member Max Cobb.

But the cases that I heard rumors of, even promises of, have never materialized.

The Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) was supposed to revolutionize anti-doping and indicate if athletes had been blood doping even when no illicit substance was detected. That sure would have been handy due to the drugs’ short detection windows and athletes’ and doctors’ strategies of “microdosing.”

But there have been no doping bans on the basis of ABP in skiing or biathlon [5]. I don’t think that even the most optimistic of fans really believes that this is because there is no blood doping going on.

What does that mean? That ABP doesn’t work, that it wouldn’t hold up in arbitration? Or that something else is going on?

It would be hard to look at IBU President Anders Besseberg’s behavior in the last two years – for instance, the IBU’s continued insistence that it’s totally fine to hold events in Russia, or his demeanor and statements during meetings with athletes – and conclude anything other than that he is sympathetic to Russia and would even more generally like to simply pretend that there was no scandal in his sport.

Having a few true anti-doping crusaders on a governing board does not clean sport make. I don’t want to put words into their mouths, but probably, it just makes these crusaders even more frustrated.

“When the McLaren Report first came out, I thought that doping was the greatest threat to our sport,” U.S. biathlete Susan Dunklee told FasterSkier in January 2017. “However after watching the last few weeks play out, I believe that the IBU’s reluctance to meaningfully act to prevent doping is the greatest threat to our sport.”

Then there is FIS. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, there were 46 skiers implicated in the McLaren report. Not all of them, obviously, were at the 2014 Olympics or Paralympics, yet as far as anyone can tell, FIS has done nothing to investigate the other cases, some of which include alleged anti-doping rule violations.

A FIS whistleblower just leaked a bunch of old blood profile data to an international team of journalists.

(Which, by the way, how can I get in on that? Hi? I’m over here! I know a lot about doping in skiing and I also how to do statistics!)

The data is interesting, but nothing can really be done with it, as it is old and from the days before ABP was a policy. Without the journalists or their experts explaining how they decided what an “abnormal or highly abnormal” blood profile is, it’s impossible to judge what percentage of the athletes they identify as potentially having doped actually were likely dopers.

But perhaps this indicates that someone within FIS is frustrated with how things are going. If you cared about skiing being clean, cared about doing your job well, and listened to Kasper say things like “sanctioning entire countries is purely political and I do not agree with this,” you might be frustrated too.

And here’s the last thing. In this whole scandal we are talking about one country. That’s Russia, and it has led to a lot of ideological discussion.

But it’s not really about Russia.

Yes, the IOC and the IBU and FIS want to keep Russia happy, because their sports are popular in Russia, the Russian athletes are talented and popular even outside the country, because Russia is great at hosting events, and because Russian fans travel all over to watch competitions. That’s part of it.

And yes, some commentators have complained that athletes are being punished just because they are Russian. They have complained that this is a U.S.-led effort reviving Cold War hostilities. That we are Russophobes. That we are hypocrites because American sports stars dope too, and/or that lots of countries dope but we just haven’t found out about it.

But again, that’s being far too myopic about things, and believing that this scandal is only a thing unto itself, not part of the bigger problem.

If this scandal had taken place with Norway, Sweden, Germany, the United States, or any other country at the center – the outcome or the (lack of) speed of its resolution probably wouldn’t have been much different [6].

I – yes, I’m among those journalists accused of being hypocritical and anti-Russian, I’ve even been compared to Nazis, gee that was fun – I would chase this scandal just as hard if it had arisen in any of these other countries.

In fact, I would have investigated it with even more fervor if these were American or Canadian skiers and biathletes we were talking about. And presumably most of the evidence would have been in English, so I could investigate more effectively, without translating things I was looking for into Russian, searching the internet or evidence documents, and then translating the Russian back into English, in a crappy game of “telephone”.

I think that the North American athletes I routinely interview are aware that if I found out they were cheating, I would have no remorse and they would have nowhere to hide.

Just as I’m not a hypocrite, these sports organizations aren’t, either – well, they are, but not in this way, not when it comes to nationality. The claims that various decisions just come from Russian money and bribes are missing the point.

Whether coming from Russia or elsewere, these organizations don’t want a big scandal. They don’t want to rewrite their results sheets. The athletes who missed out on medals they probably should have taken home? These organizations don’t really care about athletes.

They are just an unfortunate bit of collateral damage, but oh well.

Time will march on. A new race will be held. It will be an exciting race! We will all be caught up in it.

Maybe Pellegrino will upset Klæbo.

Maybe an American will finally win a medal.

Maybe Fourcade will mess up his first stage, but then climb back to gold anyway.

Maybe Makarainen will mess up all her shooting stages, and we will all watch rapt to see whether she can pass 15 people on the final loop. Maybe she can.

Maybe Harvey will finally truly become the Prince of Quebec, crowned with an Olympic medal.

Maybe the breakaway will succeed.

Or maybe the favorite will win, but we will be enthralled until the final moment, watching to see whether they will pull it off.

Soon, we will forget about those athletes whom we were wondering about, the ones who maybe probably should have a medal stashed in their safe deposit box somewhere and a whole lot more sponsor money than they have now.

Those athletes will slip farther and farther to the back of our minds. In the forefront will be the day’s competition – so amazing! – and the big happy family that is sport.

Actual clean sport is not, and never was, these organizations’ goal.

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Footnotes:

[1] On the topic of skiers who were cleared by CAS: Maxim Vylegzhanin’s sample from Sochi also had scratches on it and had an incorrectly reported specific gravity; the two other members of the men’s relay team also had marks on their sample bottles, and one had a sample whose specific gravity was too high to be believable; two sprinters had marks on their sample bottles and for one, there as also a foreign fiber inside the bottle. Julia Ivanova, whose ban was not overturned by CAS, had an impossibly high salt value in her urine sample.

[2] I actually think CAS does work. CAS handles far more than doping cases – they handle contract disputes, team selection, trades, anything you can think of that would need arbitration. And as far as I know, they do a good job. This is the first CAS decision that has left me truly baffled.

[3] Term limits, man. We really, really need term limits.

[4] I’m not going to talk in much detail in this piece about WADA, which alternatingly does the right thing and the wrong thing, and often does the wrong thing for a very long time first. But at least in the last year or so, WADA is no worse than any other group, and indeed maybe a bit better.

[5] Blood profiles have certainly led to targeted testing, which caught athletes before the 2014 Olympics. But nobody bothered to try an ABP case, that we know of. Nor, seemingly, did the biathletes that the McLaren Report alleges were doping – Olga Vilukhina and Yana Romanova – fail their ABP’s. Either ABP is not being used, or it is not being successful and the details of the cases are never made public.

[6] If the perpetrator of this scandal hadn’t been Russia, I think the main difference might have been the reaction within that different country. I don’t think the Norwegian public would react the same way the Russian public has. Each place has its own culture around sport and what it means, and government also plays various different roles in supporting and controlling sport. But the reaction from the international organizations? Things would probably be much the same.

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olympic memories.

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Dedicated readers of this blog will remember all the things I wrote about this winter when I was in Sochi, Russia, for the winter Olympics. What a trip that was! You can revisit it here.

I was thinking about the Olympics this week as Norway withdrew its bid to host the 2022 winter Games in Oslo. Man, that would have been a lot of fun. The whole ski world was holding our breath, daring to imagine how insanely awesome an Oslo Holmenkollen Games would be. But they won’t be. I thought not only about my experience this winter in Sochi, but also a long time ago when my family went to Albertville in 1992 and Lillehammer in 1994 to watch aunt Liz compete.

The result is this editorial, which I am pretty proud of.

When I was putting it together, I flipped through our photo albums of the Albertville and Lillehammer trips, which was super fun. I scanned a few of the photos, which I’m posting here! One takeaway, for sure: I used to smile more, when I was a kid….

The top photo is of a birthday party in Lillehammer. My uncle, father, and grandfather all have February birthdays, so there were always birthday parties at the Olympics. For this one, we brought a book of paper cut-out masks, and colored them all in. Lizzie is hoisting a glass of wine (I can’t remember if this was before or after her competition); I appear to be killing my poor cousin Mary, as my mom reaches across like stop, you insolent pain in the ass…

I have a new plan for 2022, which is that even if the Olympics aren’t in Oslo, that might be the best place to be. We already know that their television coverage is infinitely superior to what we get here in the U.S., so why don’t we all just head to Oslo and watch the Games from there? We can hit the Nordmarka on our skis in between events. Please join me. Oslo, I think this is a big tourism opportunity for you.

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finish line.

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(I couldn’t bring my camera out on course for the 50 k, so this is a photo by my coworker Nat Herz/FasterSkier.)

We made it to the finish line! Sunday was the Olympic 50 k, the last race of the Games for nordic sports. They scheduled the competition for 11 a.m. which seemed a little cruel since nobody was used to getting up early, but I think the athletes appreciated it because the course was still icy and fast. We, however, were suffering when we staggered awake in the morning.

Immediately, some asshole almost ruined my day. His name is Johannes Dürr, and he is an Austrian skier. He’s had a good season, finishing third in the grueling Tour de Ski and eighth in the Olympic 30 k skiathlon. Yesterday morning, news leaked out that he had tested positive for EPO, the blood-boosting drug, and been kicked out of the Olympics.

A few days earlier, German skier/biathlete Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle had tested positive for a dubiously effective stimulant that she took accidentally in a supplement. We spent all day running around trying to figure out the story and what was going on. I was setting up for another day like that – and I was pissed. It was the last day, it was beautiful and sunny. All we wanted to do was watch the 50 k, write three easy stories (the nice thing about these long mass-start races is that the storyline is already there), and go home, be done, drink some beer, and celebrate having survived the Games. We did not want hours and hours of chasing down leads added in there.

Fuck you, Johannes Dürr. Not only are you a horrible person for cheating, but couldn’t I have a nice Sunday?

As it turned out, the story was quite straightforward. We gathered some information and quotes from other news sources. The IOC has not yet released its case files so nobody really has all of the details. After the first frantic push, trying to get something posted before the start of the 50 k, we mostly ignored young Mr. Dürr.

And luckily, someone else completely un-ruined my day. I will not name him or her for fear of getting them in trouble, but I was given a service bib for the last two days of racing. That meant that I could pretend to be team staff and actually get out to stand on the side of the course, not in the mêlée of spectators.

At the cross country venue, photographers can get on course but not journalists, and you can’t even see the trails from the mixed zone. So Alex and I had been running around in the crowds all week trying to get the best views, getting elbowed and jostled and sung at by drunk Norwegian, having crazy Russians hold up flags blocking our views just as the skiers were coming into sight, and being stuck behind tall people so we couldn’t see at all.

On Sunday, I just walked right out on course with the coaches. It was 50 degrees. I was wearing a t-shirt, short sleeves, and basking in the sun. I found a spot at the very top of the course where I would see the skiers four times in every 10 k loop, and I sat and enjoyed the race. Thank you thank you, unnamed friend, for giving me a bib!

The race was a great one, a very exciting way to finish the Games. There was a lot of drama – would Dario Cologna win his third gold medal? Answer: no, he broke a ski in the final 1500 meters, heartbreak. Would the Russians finally win their first gold in cross country skiing? Answer: better than that, they’d sweep the damn podium with a crazy and exciting and unbelievable final push up the hill and into the stadium.

We went back to the media center. I was sad to leave the sun.

We finished our stories and went home to our hotel. Nat and I went for a run. Then we all got dinner (which is another story in and of itself, maybe later), came back to our room, and drank some beer. We were so tired, so exhausted, that we got giggly and silly. The three of us worked well together all Games, although for sure there were times when we got frustrated with each other’s working styles and priorities. But to have an evening where we weren’t thinking about work at all, where it was all over, and we were just hanging out being friends – it was awesome.

We had been holding it together and pumping out stories because we had to. It wasn’t because we were even very capable of doing it. In one of my last headlines, I misspelled the word “Canada”. Nat really bungled “Sachenbacher” in another headline. We received an angry e-mail about a typo which said “skies” instead of “skis”. But more than the typos, my writing just way worse. The last report I wrote is one of the driest things I’ve ever published (luckily because of the storyline, it’s still received a ton of hits and a lot of comments).

Now that we don’t have to be holding it together, I feel crumpled and deflated, more like a corpse than a human being. You can live on willpower alone for a long time, but it does have consequences.

I can’t believe that Games are over. It’s been an exhausting, exhilirating, fun time. I want to do it all over again right now. No matter how hard it was, I don’t want to go back to normal life.

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Whew, so it’s been a little while since I posted, long enough that at least one person got worried about me. Don’t worry, I’m safe! I have to admit that yesterday was a pretty overwhelming day, with two team sprints for cross country and then a mixed relay for biathlon. it was a lot of work and definitely on the border of what I’m able to handle. On top of that, Tuesday was supposed to be a day off (journalists need to sleep sometimes too, you know!) but because the men’s mass start was messed up by the fog, they ended up racing that day.

On one of the days where we only had one race – so, supposedly, an easy day – I still published four different stories. Oops. That’s not good energy management!

Anyway, here’s a couple of fun story.

Last night I was taking the gondola up to our hotel at night and climbed in with four guys in matching jackets. They had some kind of accreditation and were chatting away in a foreign language. I heard “Cologna” and perked up – they were talking about cross country skiing, my thing! But they were chatting and chatting. As I waited for a lull in the conversation to as where they were from, I noticed some characteristics about the language, which at first wasn’t easily identifiable. I know French and I can recognize German, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Russian, and many of the other languages in which you might discuss cross-country skiing. This was not any of those, but I picked up alternating hints of Italian and German.

“Where are you guys from?” I finally asked.

They all laughed and didn’t answer.

“You are asking because it is a strange language?” One finally said.

“Is it Romansh?” I asked.

They started basically cheering. “Wow! Yes! How do you know?”

Romansh is a language that is spoken by less than 1% of Swiss citizens, all of whom live in the southeast, in the region around the Engadin valley. Where I lived in Davos, they did not speak Romansh – they spoke German. But as I traipsed about hiking and running, I would find myself in valleys where Romansh was still spoken. It’s a mix of straight-up Latin that has been modified with Germanic words and some grammar. My housemate Quim said that it was close enough to Catalan that he could more or less understand the gist of things.

These guys were from a Romansh radio station. It seemed like a long way to come for just 1% of the Swiss population (I asked how many listeners the radio station had and they didn’t know). But then again, the region has been pretty darn successful. Dario Cologna has won two gold medals in skiing and Selina Gasparin a medal in biathlon. In the first week of the Olympics, the guys gleefully told me, the Romansh had more medals than Russia!

It was a really cool conversation and a huge improvement from the night before when an old and slightly overweight Russian woman was coughing black smokers’ lung all over us.

tour de gondola.

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The last few days have been sort of “meh” in some ways. It was foggy at the venue, so the men’s biathlon mass start – which I had been really looking forward to – has been postponed again and again. Yesterday we spent most of the day sitting in the press center getting antsy and waiting for a race to happen. Finally, the women’s mass start went off. The race for gold was totally boring as Darya Domracheva decimated the field for the third competition in a row. But behind her things were still interesting with a good race for bronze. And, Susan Dunklee did it again with 12th place, the best finish ever for a U.S. woman at the Olympics. Go Suz!

In all of the downtime yesterday I worked on a story based on a long interview I did with the International Biathlon Union’s medical chief, Dr. Jim Carrabre. We talked doping and boy, did we ever talk doping. Only about half of the interview made it into the piece, so there’s still more to come, but I think the result (here) was pretty interesting.

However, despite all the outrage about doping, apparently nobody wants to read about the nitty-gritty of what goes on. They only want to read about the scandals that consume previously famous athletes. Because, even though my piece is covering ground that I don’t think other people have covered, nobody is reading it.

At the same time that I published that, my colleague Nat published a funny piece about how much the Norwegians have been sucking in skiing at this Olympics. In an hour, it garnered 1200 reads. My piece had 120.

To be fair, Nat’s piece was excellent. I love it. It’s delicious and gossipy but still built on the back of a lot of real reporting. Go give it a read, you won’t be disappointed.

But it does say a lot about what people want to read. Schadenfreude? Yes, please more! Substantive research on an issue they claim to care about? nah, never mind.

Anyway. There’s a fun story in here, I promise! Two mornings ago we met up with Rob Whitney at the base of our little gondola. Rob is a former excellent ski racer, now living in Anchorage and working as a firefighter. He is married to Holly Brooks, who is competing here in her second Olympics. Rob snagged a job working for NBC as the in-the-box researcher for Al Trautwig, who is announcing the cross country races. So we have someone else cool to hang out with.

Our goal for the morning was to go all the way to the top of the mountains that we can see every day. The mountains are sweet and epic and huge and snowy and white! We had heard a rumor that with our credential – which says “ALL” – we could ride the gondola to the top. Rob claimed to have done “research” about which of the dozen gondolas we would have to take. He said three. We walked up to the train station and tried to get on one.

It was not immediately obvious where it would take us, and the volunteer didn’t speak much English. Rob was trying to explain that we wanted to go to the “tippy top” of the mountain (I don’t think “tippy top” is a phrase they teach you in English 101) and that it would take three gondolas. The guy was getting more and more confused. Finally he handed Rob his smartphone and told him to type his question into google translate.

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That didn’t help much. We decided to just get on the damn gondola and see where it took us. It would be up, after all. So off we went. It took us to the Sanki sliding center! huh.

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Unfortunately, the gondola going up the mountain from there was closed. We could see it extending off up the hill, eventually ending at the “tippy top”, but we couldn’t get there. So instead we did a gondola traverse of the mountain to try to reach another gondola that would.

First, we had to walk and ride past some environmental yuck. Building everything on the side of these very steep mountains has been sort of a shitshow. Things will definitely slide down the mountain. The ski jumps basically already are. One problem is that they more or less raped the hillsides where they are building things, and there are no trees or vegetation left to stabilize the slopes. When it’s snow-covered you can’t really tell how bad it is. But it has been very warm (it rained this morning) and so the snow is melting and all of a sudden, some places look pretty darn ugly.

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But anyway… we eventually got to the bottom of that gondola (let’s keep a tally, it’s out third of the day: down from the hotel, then up to the sliding center, then down this one). We hopped on gondola #4, which took us up to one side of the alpine and freestyle venues. From there we saw another gondola heading up to the “tippy top” of another mountain! Yes! It was turning into a beautiful sunny day and our heads were swimming with what the views must be like from 7000 feet. Yes! We were almost there!

…. except that we were told that we couldn’t go. Only athletes, team staff, or skiers with tickets could go up this gondola. We had missed the boat on buying tickets.

To be clear, this dog got to go up to the top of the mountain, and I did not.

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However, some team staff have a colored “sleeve” that they slide over one arm as their accreditation. It so happens that photographers have the same sleeves, just in different colors. Nat, as a photographer, had one of these sleeves. So they let him on. I handed him my camera and Alex, Rob, and I hung out on the terrace of the ski lodge. The lodge was really nice and had a huge cafeteria, where they were not serving food. We couldn’t even get a coffee. Oh well. The terrace was nice and sunny. Photo from Alex’s instagram:

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The gondola also was the one that serves the “mountain village” athletes’ village, so we got a glimpse of that. It’s definitely, definitely not as nice as the “endurance village” where I visited Susan. Still has nice views though.

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We waited as Nat went up and then down gondola #5. He was definitely grinning when he came back. Later, when I downloaded my photos, I was able to take a little tour of what he had seen from 7000 feet in Russia. You can see into Georgia, which is pretty cool.

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Anyway. Nat came back, and we realized that we were pretty far up a mountain on the wrong side of the valley and that sometime soon we would have to be over at the cross country race, which started at 2 p.m. So we had better get skedaddling. We headed back down gondola #4 and into a little plaza in Rosa Khutor. Still smarting from not being able to get a coffee at that semi-closed ski lodge – if there is one thing that reporters really need a lot of, it’s coffee – we stopped at McDonalds where capuccinos were really quite affordable. The place was hopping. Since he has a real job, Rob treated us. Thanks Rob!

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From there it was up gondola #3 and down gondola #2 (we decided that though ridiculous, this was a better option than walkig back to the train station, since part of the walk has no sidewalks and you have to be on the side of the road with buses and trucks going past…). And in our biggest gamble of the day, we decided to take the giant high-speed gondola which traverses up the other side of the valley. Seriously, this thing is huge. Each car holds about 20 people, although they weren’t filling up. And it moves FAST. Scariest to me, the cable spanned some very long distances, very high in the air. It was absolutely incredible. We don’t have numbers, but we’re guessing that the longest span must be close to a kilometer. It’s insane.

Also insane? The views.

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Yeah, gondola #6 was pretty sweet. Eventually, though, the ride came to an end. We were spit out at a seemingly random mid-station – it was totally weird that such a huge gondola went to somewhere there wasn’t much infrastructure.

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We walked outside and around the wheelhouse, and then had a choice to take a chairlift to the cross country venue, or a gondola to the biathlon venue. Since the press center is in the biathlon venue, it was a no-brainer. Gondola #7!

It was pretty crazy to go back to work after our strange morning of traveling around Sochi by air. I’m interested to know why they built so many gondolas – there are at least three or four more that we haven’t even seen, and a few others that we have ridden to other things. It could be a good way to stay a little more environmentally clean, except that we saw firsthand what they did to the hillsides in order to put these things in. Is it still better than having a road which has to be constantly maintained? I think, maybe so. Not sure. The scary thing is that like the ski jumps, these may have been built on geologically unstable soil, so I wonder how long they will last. The idea of anything happening to that giant high-speed one gives me the willies.

After the race, we took our usual gondola down to the bottom of the venue (gondola #8 on the day) and then walked back to the village, where we took gondola #1 up to the hotel. What a day.

we found salad in a hopeless place.

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We thought yesterday was going to be an easy day. And I guess it was – just one race. When the women’s 4 x 5 k relay finished, we went, woohooo! Let’s drink a beer in the sun! Then quickly write our two stories, and then go into Adler and explore and get a real dinner!

Of course, none of those things happened. We went inside and began writing. And with more time to work with, we produced better, more detailed, more polished stories. We had time to be perfectionists. It was still 8 p.m. when we left the venue, no time to take the long trip down to the cities.

That morning, as Alex and I were jogging, she said, “if we go out to dinner tonight, I’m going to order just vegetables.” I agreed – a salad! That would be amazing! We have had good carbs and proteins from breakfast (and the other food we steal from breakfast to turn into lunch), but there is a distinct lack of green vegetables, or any other-colored vegetables for that matter. I was longing for vegetables like whoa.

That morning we showed up for breakfast and Nat said, “I really want a salad for dinner tonight.” It was sealed.

So when we didn’t have time to go out to dinner, we were determined to find our vegetables one way or another. I suggested we return to the grocery store near the bottom of our gondola. So we did.

First of all, you have to go through security just to get into the mall. This caused some hilarity since we were still carrying everything from our day at the races. In our bags: computers, cameras, extra clothes, cables of all kinds, leftover lunch, bottles of water, sunscreen, everything. The screener made the first two of us unpack our bags to see what was inside, but the line was getting very long behind us as most people don’t show up at the mall with a  34-liter backpack packed to the brim.

Finally, we were inside! Alex and I spent some time perusing the Adidas store. Winter Adidas products don’t really exist in the U.S., but there was some really nice stuff. The vest we both liked was almost 3000 rubles, though, or 100 dollars. Also, everything said Russia on the back. We proceeded to the grocery store.

The vegetable selection was not huge. But it was big enough. We also returned with other goodies, and a lot of beer. I found one of my favorite Munich beers, Franziskaner Weissbier, and bought a bottle even though it was ridiculously expensive. We’ll split it some day. Alex found a nice double chocolate stout as a similar treat, and we bought quite a few cheap beers to tide us over (including Löwenbräu, another Munich beer – I was like, I went to their tent at Oktoberfest!).

Then we lugged our groceries back to the room ad began our feast. Salad! Oh my gosh! We had lettuce, tomatoes, feta, and a peach we had stolen from breakfast (also olives for the other guys, but I hate olives). It was simple, but I’ve never been so excited to eat some lettuce in my life. What a treat.

In the photo, you can see our food spread – dinner ingredients, some salami-type sausage that we got to put with some cheese and crackers, and then a whole lot of snack food to get us through the days.

Awkwardly, when we arrived in our room, I couldn’t get the lights to turn on. It’s one of those rooms where you insert the room card above the light switch, and then there’s a master switch that you turn on that only works if the room card is in. I pushed that switch and nothing happened. Alex started freaking out that maybe they had checked me out of the room. But eventually, we ascertained that the other lights worked once the card was in – the bathroom and the ones by the beds and desks. Oh well, we thought. That’s enough.

Less than ten minutes later, there was a knock on the door. Nat had gone to scrounge up some silverware, so we thought it would be him coming back. But no. It was a tall Russian, asking, “you have some problems?”

“No,” we said, confused.

Then a few seconds later…. “oh! well actually, yeah, the lights don’t work!”

We hadn’t told anyone that the lights didn’t work or asked them to fix them. Hmmm.

Anyway, the guy began fiddling with the wiring and breakers, as we were laying out our feast and eating it. I’m not sure what he thought of all the beer glasses, plates, and silverware we had stashed away gradually in our room, or the spread of other food we had acquired – whatever, making sure that we pay to eat at the bar isn’t his job, so he probably didn’t care.

We hope that now we can avoid scurvy.