Sochi Has Diversity But 'Blackness' Isn't Part Of It

Host Michel Martin gets a preview of the Winter Olympics, from the athletes to the accommodations. She talks with NPR's Sonari Glinton, and McClatchy's William Douglas, who are in Sochi for the Games.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's start the program today by looking ahead to the Winter Olympics. Opening ceremonies are Friday, but some events start tomorrow in Sochi, Russia. But early reports suggest that one thing that won't get a gold medal are the accommodations. Pictures of unfinished hotel rooms, strangely configured bathrooms and undrinkable water have been hitting the web from reporters and athletes in town before the games. We wanted to hear it straight from our folks on the ground, so we're joined now by NPR's Sonari Glinton. Sonari, welcome.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: It's good to be here.

MARTIN: Also joining us, William Douglas. He is a reporter for McClatchy, the news organization, and he also runs "The Color of Hockey" blog. Bill Douglas, welcome back to you.

WILLIAM DOUGLAS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So I understand that security is something that really jumped out to you. So, Sonari, we've heard about this 1,500 square-mile security zone. What's that like?

GLINTON: I don't necessarily see the security, like, in your face when you're going around. I mean, you do have to swipe your card to get into any venue or to get into your hotel. However, when I was going up to the mountains, you could see every hundred feet or so that there was an officer. You could see army barracks. I could see, you know, the soldiers massing outside of town. So, I mean, it's not inside the village where you see it so much. It's outside where you start to notice.

MARTIN: What about the political tensions that we have been reporting on at the run-up to the games? I mean, obviously, there's a lot of concern about these anti-propaganda laws, targeting LGBT people. And then there's these efforts made sort of to combat terrorism. Some people are worried that that's actually just kind of another tool of kind of political repression. Do you feel that there?

GLINTON: If I can find somebody who is not working for the Olympics in this town, I might be able to sense it. But when you go around, I mean, almost everyone is wearing, you know, one of the Olympic jackets.

MARTIN: Bill?

DOUGLAS: The interaction with real people, you have to sort of go into town to find that. I and my interpreter, we went into town on Saturday. We wanted to ask people about the anti-propaganda law. The dozen or so people we encountered either, one, we don't know anything about the law, or, two, you know, we don't necessarily like the law, but at the same time, we feel that people have the right to express themselves the way they want to express themselves.

So Sochi is sort of a different environment. It isn't necessarily as politically cosmopolitan as Moscow or St. Petersburg. And people are so focused on the Olympics and people are so careful because they want the Olympics to succeed, and they want to have the world come away with a very nice impression of this area, that they're very, very careful.

MARTIN: So, Bill, tell us about the accommodations, speaking of coming away with a nice impression of the area. I mean, a lot of stuff that's been hitting the web so far, not such a great look.

DOUGLAS: No. I mean, I'm one of the lucky ones. I mean, I arrived here a week ago, and my accommodations were - you know, I blogged it and sort of described it as a two-star roadside hotel. The towels are a little rough. I have a little drip in my toilet. But that's OK. I mean, the problem that journalists were having - and we're sort of a coddled travelled lot - that, you know, necessities like Internet weren't available, necessities like television weren't available.

And when you're working in your room and writing, that's a problem. But I personally did not have the nightmares. Some of my colleagues have had bathroom mirrors they have to sort of, like, bend over or squat, some of them, so they can see themselves shave - sinks that are too small. One of my colleagues who checked in couldn't get to his bathroom 'cause the door was locked, so they had to give him a new room. So the accommodations are less than ideal for a lot of people.

MARTIN: What about for the athletes?

DOUGLAS: Oh, high-quality.

MARTIN: They're better.

GLINTON: I mean, you...

MARTIN: Sonari, forgive me. These are sounding of kind of First World problems to me.

GLINTON: I sit next to Kelly McEvers who snuck into Syria, so I can't complain about my accommodations. But the athletes all say that, you know, the food is good, their facilities are great and not just the facilities where they're sleeping. And they also talk about the ice and things like that that they say it's high-quality. And since these facilities have been tested, at least for the athletes, they've sort of gotten the kinks out. You can sort of see where the priorities of the Russian government were, you know, when you look around like, who's having the problems? The athletes, they're doing fine. It's the reporters and journalists who got the short end.

DOUGLAS: Right, I mean, being here for so long, it's sort of like watching people prepare for, like, holiday guests or Thanksgiving dinner. By Wednesday you think, well, maybe I'll clean the house. Then by, like, Friday night, maybe I should baste the turkey and put it in the oven. So there's a lot of last-minute stuff that's still going on. You know, here at the coastal level, where we are, it's OK. You know, they've got some work to do up in the mountains. That's where sort of the hotel problem is. That's where some road problems are. They're building towns out of nothing up there. You know, they quite didn't make the deadline. So they're...

MARTIN: Bill, I'm not ready to put in for hazardous duty pay for you. Sorry, but not quite yet. But...

DOUGLAS: Well, think of me, though, please.

GLINTON: Yeah, look at me...

MARTIN: I'll send you a care package of...

DOUGLAS: Well, that...

MARTIN: ...Toothpaste and - what - a shaving mirror. I'm not quite sure what you would...

DOUGLAS: Well, actually, my wife sent me turkey jerky, and peanut butter was arriving. But that kind of got confiscated at the airport. So...

MARTIN: OK. If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Bill Douglas. He reports for the McClatchy news service. He runs "The Color of Hockey" blog. And Sonari Glinton is a reporter for NPR. We're talking about the Winter Olympics. They're both in Sochi in advance of the games, which actually start tomorrow. So, Bill, what about the games? What is it that - are people starting to get excited? And what are some of the things that we should be looking forward to?

DOUGLAS: It's hard. I mean, this truly has been a bubble here because Putin put a - you know, he calls it a security ring of steel. Almost everybody within this ring of steel who is Russian is working. But, you know, in my ventures into town, we were in Sochi Saturday. And there's a ticket office at the train station in Sochi, and there were lines around the block. So people are very excited. The Russians are particularly interested in the hockey because that's their sport. Putin's a huge hockey fan. They have high expectations for the Russian hockey team to do well, which puts a certain great pressure on the Russian hockey team. Canada's in the same boat - there are high expectations for Canada.

The Canadians have had it - sort of a rough winter with hockey this year. They didn't do well in the junior worlds in Malmo, Sweden. And the women's Canadian hockey team lost the last four games - exhibition games - against the United States women, which culminated in a brawl in North Dakota. So Canada's really looking to step up its game and, you know, avenge their hockey honor. And the United States, which came very, very close to winning a gold medal in Vancouver in 2010, they have high expectations as well. So, you know, those are the three countries that really have a lot of pressure on them. And with that pressure, other countries like Sweden, which has a very good hockey program, and Finland, which has a very, very good hockey program, could slip in as well.

MARTIN: Sonari, what are your listeners interested in? What are you going to be focusing on while you're there?

GLINTON: To pivot from hockey to figure skating - there's going to be twice as much figure skating at this Olympics because the figure skaters in each country get to compete as a team. So they're going to have the team sports and then they're going to the individuals. So there's going to be twice as much sequins, twice as much Gershwin, twice as much style on the ice in Sochi. I think it's going to be fun because, you know, not only is figure skating exciting, but it's really, really popular, and that's part of why we got that much more.

MARTIN: Bill, do you beg to differ that figure skating is exciting or are you going to be chivalrous and...

DOUGLAS: I'm going to be chivalrous and defer. The figure skating isn't - it is an exciting event, and, more important, a well-watched event. The networks depend on figure skating. They hope...

MARTIN: Well, what are some of the other things you're looking at?

DOUGLAS: I'm looking at bobsled. I mean, the bobsled to me is interesting because - the U.S. women's bobsled team is fascinating because they have five women of color in the women's bobsled. I'm not sure that's a record, but it's very interesting. Among those women is Lolo Jones, who had a rough couple of Summer Olympics - you know, had gold-medal expectations and didn't meet them, kind of rubbed her teammates on the U.S. track team the wrong way. And she sort of is resurrecting herself here as a bobsledder. And they met with the media a couple of days ago and the other women on the team were very supportive.

Everybody was all smiles and - all smiles and expectations. So I'm looking at the bobsled. And, of course, when you talk about the bobsled - the Jamaican bobsled team is back after 12 years of not being in the Olympics. They will not win a medal, but they bring a certain amount of energy and fun to the event. And they've been very, very interesting to watch and to talk to because in this Olympics, you have a record number of new countries, new warm weather countries - Zimbabwe is here, Paraguay is here, Tonga is here, I believe Togo is here. And when you talk to some of the athletes involved with those countries, they will say that the Jamaican bobsled team and "Cool Runnings" was partially responsible for them being here, it sort of sparked their interest.

MARTIN: Wow. Sonari, any final thoughts from you?

GLINTON: Well, here's something interesting - we're both African American men...

DOUGLAS: Yes.

GLINTON: ...At the Winter Olympics. And there are not a lot of us. And I've noticed at least a half a dozen times where I've been stopped by security guards who've wanted to take a photo with me or bystanders who wanted to take a photo with an African-American.

DOUGLAS: We're very popular here.

MARTIN: Do they think that you're members of the Jamaican bobsled team? Or - what - they're just interested?

GLINTON: No.

MARTIN: Just interested?

GLINTON: You haven't seen me in a while, Michel, I don't look like an athlete, you know.

DOUGLAS: His dreads look fabulous though.

MARTIN: So - well, thank you for bringing that up because that was actually one of my questions. This is not exactly the most diverse part of the world, and I just wondered whether you were - I was going to use the word conspicuous, but it sounds like you are celebrities. It sounds like you're celebrities there, right?

GLINTON: Everyone is super friendly, I mean - but it's still a long way from the Southside of Chicago.

DOUGLAS: They have their own diversity here but, you know, blackness is not necessarily one of them. But everyone's been polite. They ask if we can post for pictures, they ask questions about New York. They're interested, they are intrigued. And I think most of the people that stop and ask, I don't think they're from the big cities. They're from maybe the interior and maybe have not had exposure to black people other than what they've seen in magazines or on television.

MARTIN: Well, you'll both have some interesting stories to tell, right, when you come back right. Hope you - we'll be talking with you. We'll keep checking in with you. Bill Douglas reports for McClatchy and also runs "The Color of Hockey" blog. Sonari Glinton is a reporter for NPR. They both joined us from the Sochi, Russia, where they are both reporting on the Winter Olympics. The events start tomorrow. Thank you both so much for joining us. Stay warm.

DOUGLAS: Thank you.

GLINTON: You're welcome.

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