Winter Olympics 2014: Vanessa Mae, Pussy Riot, Britain still rubbish - lessons learned from Sochi

From gay rights to punk-rock protests, Russia’s Games have mystified and charmed viewers. Tom Peck looks back

Where London had G4S, Sochi had G-A-Y. Rows that dominate the build-up to an Olympic Games rarely come to overshadow them, even though Sochi’s was rather more serious than London’s – a sovereign nation persecuting a large section of its own people, as opposed to a cocked up contract with a private security firm.

But it meant that the casual observer found out very little about what to expect from an Olympics in a town they’d never heard of, in a difficult region of a confusing country. But two weeks on, as the Closing Ceremony’s curtain fell last night, the Sochi Games have charmed and mystified audiences in equal measure. So what have we learned?

Violinists do not make good skiers

Type Vanessa Mae into Google and you’ll quickly find out she is a British-Singaporean violinist, which does little to explain quite why she has been slaloming down the Sochi mountains in the colours of Thailand. She also had to change her name to Vanakorn, that of her Thai father’s. She came last in the women’s downhill and by some margin. She was also, at 35, the oldest competitor, also by some margin. But she is no gallant Olympic failure, like the Jamaican bobsled team, or Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards. She trained for just six months, and her aim was to “not get lost”. She didn’t, alas, but had she done so, no one would have been getting their violins out.

Life’s still tough for girl bands

You turn up, you put on your luminous balaclava and start to sing. Then you get pepper sprayed and whipped by a cossack. It came as no surprise to see the newly unimprisoned Russian protest punk act Pussy Riot turn up at the Games with politics on their minds, but the pictures that emerged of two of their number being attacked by Russian security forces were still extremely shocking. Two of them were later arrested on suspicion of stealing a woman’s handbag. It’s as true as ever, that if you want to protest successfully at the Olympics, you’ve really got to win a medal first.

Russia CAN throw a party

Well, kind of. It certainly looks incredible on the television, the medal plaza packed at night in that central square surrounded by five stunning stadiums. But, whisper it, there’s not that many people around. Sochi is a town of 300,000 people, the Olympic Park isn’t even in the main part of it and it’s still a  two-hour flight from Moscow and three from St Petersburg.  Most of the volunteers were flown in and almost none of the events have been full. Those who are there are doing an impressive job of looking happy. The McDonald’s didn’t get built in time, leaving Olympic attendees with almost no dining options beyond the now infamous Sochi Hot Dog, which comes slathered in a cheese sauce so astringent it could replace soap and water as a punishment for vituperative children.

The hills are alive with the sound of woofing

In a tale of schmaltz that goes up to 11 and far beyond, when stories emerged in the days before the Games of a mass stray dog cull, a hero emerged, and he just so happened to be the coolest man on the planet. Gus Kenworthy, 22, an American wearer of back-to-front baseball caps, will not only be taking the silver medal for slopestyle skiing home with him, but no fewer than four stray puppies and their mother. He and his little doggies have become something of a social-media sensation. Now Slovenian ice-hockey players, American snowboarders and skaters are all getting in on the act. Forget Malawian babies, a Sochi stray is the new must-have animal accessory.

Not everyone’s feeling the love

If canine love is in the mountain air, it has its limits. “All you’ve got to do is walk in here, look a bit glum and it’s green-card city, Illinois,” is what the giant wolf that wandered into the athletes village must have been thinking. But it didn’t work. US luger Kate Hansen hid behind her door, terrified, and filmed the great beast wandering the corridors outside. Except, of course, she didn’t. The whole thing was a hoax by the US talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel. Privately, apparently, the International Olympic Committee blazerati are amused. President Vladimir Putin has yet to comment.

Britain are still rubbish

Yes, yes, so it’s been our most successful Games since 1924, four medals, hooray. We finished above the Italians in the medal table, despite their ready access to the Alps. But there are no longer excuses to be made. Much has been made of the heat of Sochi – ice-skating below the palm trees and so on – and it’s true. Forget mountains, sports on rinks can be done anywhere. There are ice-hockey teams all over America’s south. The Netherlands, a country and a people disarmingly similar to us, have won six golds in speed skating, purely because they’ve decided to take it seriously, as the Brits have been doing with other sports. Let’s have a proper go.

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