We can’t drive in the Olympic lanes. That’s what I’ve gathered from the cop’s angry gestures after being yelled at for five minutes in Russian. He’s taken my passport, driver’s license, journalist accreditation, and car registration. It’s the passport that I’m really worried about. I can imagine it disappearing into his pocket very easily.
An SUV pulls up and a plain-clothes cop steps out. Leather jacket and jeans, black boots. Plain-clothes cops always make me extra uncomfortable, like they’re not quite within the law. He joins the other cop at our window, does some more yelling, then motions for me to get out of the car, leaving photographer Chris Wellhausen inside.
We walk across the street and he places my passport on the hood of his car, where I keep a close eye on it. They try to interrogate me. I still have no idea what they’re saying. When they get frustrated and stop talking I reach for my passport and am met with a stern, “Nyet! Nyet!”
Plain-clothes takes a picture of me and all my documents, drives off.
The cop who pulled us over dials a number on his phone and passes it to me. There is a translator on the other end. I’m supposed to pay a 5,000 ruble fine, cash. I can pay it right now.
Cash. I’m sure that will go straight on the record books. I try to work out how much 5,000 rubles are in US dollars. Somewhere around 150 bucks I guess but I tell him no. No fine. We didn’t know we were in the wrong lane. I pass the phone back.
Seriously though, we have been driving in that lane from Sochi to the main media center at Rosa Khutor for six days, passing through the first security gate and parking wherever we wanted. Yeah, security is real tight.
Now the cop is on the phone again with the translator, nodding, saying something that doesn’t sound friendly. He hands me the phone again. “He’s says you the pay fine,” the translator says. “Pay now.”
I say no. Tell him no fine. I pass the phone back. Then plain-clothes comes returns, talks to the cop that flagged us to stop. “Camera,” plain-clothes says and points to Chris in the car. We walk across the highway to Chris and they seem to forget about the fine for a moment as they ask him to cycle through his pictures. There are photos of them pulling us over. “No,” plain-clothes says. “Delete this. Delete.”
Chris deletes the shots, but he’s smart. He had already taken a bunch of photos on another memory card and swapped it out. Those are the ones you’re looking at now.
Plain-clothes asks to see our business cards. We hand them over and he studies them. I want to show him that we’re just kindly snowboard journalists trying to do our jobs so I pull up our website on my phone. The main homepage image has Jamie Anderson with her in a victory salute after wining slopestyle gold. Snowboarding, I say pointing at the screen. We cover snowboarding.
Some chatter between the cops then. “Snowboard?,” plain clothes asks. Some more chatter and then something clicks. He smiles. “Snowboarder are our friend.”
I smile back now feeling that something good has just happened. “Yeah, snowboarders are your friends.”
Big grins for everyone now. “Okay, you go. You go now.”
Why exactly snowboarders are their friends, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because once slopestyle practice started, Shaun White dropped out, and people started complaining about the course it took some of the focus off the other #sochiproblems. I get my passport back and we decipher that we’re supposed to backtrack and get on another road. It’s not as direct as the one we’ve been on but it will get us to the main media center still.
As we drive, I find that I prefer our new route. We see bow-legged grandmas wrapped in shawls shuffling down the street. There are schools and grocery stores and steely looking men standing around smoking. Russians have a saying that a smiling man is a stupid man. There are stray dogs, of course.
Every experience from the Games so far has been choreographed, so completely controlled that I haven’t felt like I’ve seen the real Russia. When your day consists of going from the hotel to the media center to the course venue and back again you might as well be in any mountain setting. Passing through the towns I get a sense of permanence outside of the temporary chaos of the Games. We’re given a glimpse at the life that existed for generations before the Games started and the one that will remain long after the closing ceremonies, when the eyes of the world have moved on.