Sochi, Russia • Unlike those sweltering hot Winter Olympic afternoons last week, Monday dawned cloudy and cool. So I decided to take a stroll in Olympic Park.
There were many wonderful things to see in the huge plazas and lawns that surround the Olympic flame and venues.
There were stages with ethnic music. There were food kiosks with hot dogs and pizza and baked potatoes. There were Russian parents holding the hands of excited children. There were corporate pavilions with high-tech displays and dramatic sports exhibits — and free hats!
But there was one thing, one traditional Olympic element, noticeably missing.
Hey, any Americans around here?
On the park’s busiest pathway, I asked that question to a young Russian woman who was sitting in one of those high lifeguard-type chairs with a bullhorn, helping people with directions.
"Yes, I saw Americans here," she said. "I saw them here on Saturday when they played Russia in hockey. Not today. I did see Canadians."
But I was not looking for Canadians, as much as I appreciate their hockey, beer and crack-smoking mayors.
I was looking for Americans. And there are more stray dogs roaming the Olympic Park than stray Americans. They do pop up here and there at venues for events, but usually that amounts to just a few dozen friends and relatives of competitors, cheering and waving flags.
That’s a very different scene. Even at overseas Olympics. the American presence is always more congenially invasive. We travel well. At every Games, fans wearing stars-and-stripes outfits are a noticeable presence on the streets, in restaurants and at hotels. And in Olympic Parks.
Not here at Sochi 2014. I have covered seven Olympics outside North America, I have never attended one that feels so USA-less.
It’s not difficult to pinpoint why. Many American fans were surely scared off by the pre-Games terror threats from religious extremists in nearby Chechnya. Others were dissuaded by the (true) reports that not all accommodations were finished. There are anecdotal reports of stateside ticket brokers and travel agents taking a bath on unsold product or cancellations.
But folks from other countries are here. Lativans. Finns. Austrians. Swiss. Dutch. You can hear their languages spoken on the sidewalk and on buses — or in the line at the baked potato stands. Let’s listen to them converse in their diverse ways as we stroll over the pedestrian bridge to the . . .
Hey! Wait! Was that person talking in English? Could that be an actual American?
"Yes, I am," said Frank Navarro, who seemed taken aback.
Can’t blame him. I was shocked, too. It was Yankee Doodle Deficit Syndrome.
Navarro is here with his wife, Allison. They have homes in Charlotte, N.C. and in Colorado. They’re big hockey and ski fans. This Olympic trip was a 50th birthday present for Frank.
"We were originally coming with another couple," said Allison. "But about a month ago, she decided to stay home. Her husband’s still here. She’s not."
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