Spasiba Sochi

I’d not planned on coming to Russia. The BBC Sport Olympic operation was small and typically impenetrable, and after my experiences with the International Paralympic Committee’s ParalympicSportTV at London 2012, I valued my health too much to commit to another understaffed project. However, when the IPC approached me and I saw that there were actually plans (!) and [drum roll] rough technical drawings, I reconsidered. As with any ambitious project, good planning leads to success, and thankfully lessons had been learned from the stresses of London. So my plane ticket on Aeroflot was booked, and this time around I would be part of the Paralympic Family, staying in a hotel inside the Olympic Park with the rest of the team.

On arrival, the scale of the park was impressive. It was almost on a par with London, which given the money the Russians had spent on it, was expected. The Russian organising committee were still in the midst of the transition from Olympics to Paralympics, much to the concern of the IPC branding police. Every single Olympic Rings logo has to be replaced with an Agitos (the Paralympic Games emblem). This includes branding on the jackets of the thousands of volunteers, flags, signposts, the lot. In London, LOCOG had been very impressive at making this happen… it was a little bit more relaxed in Sochi, but on the day of the opening ceremony they had pretty much done it.

The Bolshoy Ice Dome complete with Agitos

On the list of impressive buildings on the site was the Media Centre, which housed the Main Press Centre and the International Broadcast Centre, where our operation would be housed. The mountains, where most of the sport would take place, loomed in the background, and the coastal park venues (including the Fisht stadium) were a few hundred yards away. The stadium was magnificent – shaped like the body of a whale with the Olympic/Paralympic cauldron doubling as the tail.

The Fisht stadium and Paralympic cauldron in the run up to the Games.

International Broadcast Centre in the Sochi Olympic Park

Inside the IBC – complete with traditional Russian cafe!

The main difference for me at these games was the fact that I had arrived 5 days before the opening ceremony. In Vancouver in 2010 I was booked from the day before the opening, and in London only 2 days before, so I have always walked into a half-built, panic-stricken office. This time it was an empty office and everything needed to be built from the three pallets of equipment which had been delivered from Germany, but at least we had the time to do it. The basic idea of the operation was to take 10 video signals which held a mix of the Winter Paralympic sports coverage from the host broadcaster, OBS (Olympic Broadcast Service). These signals would then be manually routed onto 4 channels, one for Alpine Skiing, one for Nordic Skiing, one for Ice Sledge Hockey and one for Wheelchair Curling. We would then stream these 4 channels to a multi-view online player which was embedded in the IPC’s own website, and onto using their live events service. This youtube service could then be picked up by various outlets around the world who had made deals with the IPC to stream live Paralympic sport throughout the games. Simple!

The office on the first day – a few palettes full of equipment which had been delivered from Germany and…

…10 wires hanging from the ceiling from which we would receive live sport!

But all would not go smoothly. After unpacking the crates on the first day, we arrived the next morning to discover that thieves had entered our office during the night and taken some equipment. Laptops, speakers, keyboards, post it notes (!) and most importantly, the Senseo coffee machine had vanished. We contacted the Russian police, and various men in black leather jackets descended on the office and began standing with their hands on their hips pointing at things. Remember that an Olympic Park is probably one of the most secure places on earth. Everyone who enters or exits has to have official accreditation and pass through airport-style security. Couple that with the fact that the IBC was swarming with CCTV, and you can see why the Russians were confident of catching the perpetrators. Things were not about to move quickly though, so we gathered the kit we still had, and began building the TV station.

Three days later we were finished. 4 channels with multi-viewers, 2 edit suites, a record bank, an archive server, 5 live broadcast streaming machines and a master control room. All we needed was some laptops to operate it all. The latest from the Russian Police was that they had identified the people responsible, and they had them in custody. Apparently they had been spotted running through the corridors of the IBC carrying a Senseo coffee machine! The good news continued when we found that the equipment was still in the building. But no one knew where.

A finished Master Control Room minus a few laptops and loudspeakers

As the opening ceremony approached, we carried out testing and training with the volunteers and IPC staff who were arriving in Sochi. This was unheard of in London. We barely had time to figure out the workflow ourselves, never mind train others to operate it. I distinctly remember it being day 4 of the 2012 games when I first had time off whilst the channel was on air, meaning that was the first time I had successfully conveyed the operation of the station to someone else. With testing successful (barring some minor tech problems, like ALL of the sound mixers dying) we were ready to broadcast the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.

The official IPC Sochi 2014 sound mixer graveyard – managed to get by, by using a commentary box to monitor the channels!

The opening ceremony going out live on all 4 of our channels on, as well as a live youtube stream across the globe

As the Games progressed, everything went to plan. The viewing figures were good and the IPC website was experiencing record traffic for a Winter Games. Things were looking good for my home country too. Having secured a silver on the first day, Team GB went one better when Kelly Gallagher and her guide Charlotte Evans won the women’s visually impaired Super-G on day 3. It was Britain’s first ever Winter Paralympic gold medal and so I decided to take the evening off to head up to the mountains and watch the medal ceremony.

Being part of the Paralympic family has its perks. You are able to take ‘T3′ transport around the Paralympic venues, and this means basically flagging a free taxi anywhere you want to go, although the taxis are all sponsors’ vehicles (Volkswagen Passats in this case!) The drivers are employees or volunteers, and all have a wide choice of Russian radio stations to entertain you with on the journey. My favourite was a trip around to the IBC, where the driver listened to a Metallica ‘medley’ with all the vocal sections stripped out. It was just riffs and guitar solos! I want radio stations like that in the UK.

So I took a ‘T3’ on the 45 minute ride up to Rosa Khutor alpine resport. On the way up you get an idea of where some of the vast sum of money ($51bn) the Russians had spent on these games went. Brand new road and rail lines carve up, and through, the mountains on the way to the alpine. Miles and miles of brand new infrastructure leads to a brand new mountain resort. Krasnaya Polyana, where the Rosa Khutor station is based, is not some sleepy mountain village either. There are vast new multi story hotels along the banked Mzymta river and several ski lifts soaring out of the valley up to the ski areas. Right in the centre of the resort is the medals plaza, and that is where I headed to see an historical moment for Paralympics GB.

Hotels along the banks of the Myzmta River below Rosa Khutor alpine centre

On reaching the plaza, the AAA pass really came into its own as I was ushered into the athletes’ compound right in front of the stage. There were loads of the GB team in there and the atmosphere was brilliant. Sir Phillip Craven, the president of the IPC, was on stage and, despite his obvious need to remain impartial, you could tell he was loving presenting Great Britain’s first ever Winter Paralympic gold medals. Kelly’s celebration was great, and it was brilliant to see Jade Etherington and Caroline Powell get bronze. It was their 2nd medal of the games at that stage, they were on their way to the 4 that would make them the most successful female British Paralympians of all time.

My view from the athletes’ enclosure in the medals plaza. Jade Etherington and Catherine Powell on the right step for Bronze, Kelly Gallagher in mid leap!

Charlotte Evans and Kelly Gallagher with their gold medals

After the celebrations I met up with a couple of guys from the office to go for food. One was Ryan, a writer from Canada who was wearing a Toronto Blue Jays baseball cap. We sat down in a pizza place which was packed with coaches and staff from Paralympics GB, and ate a pretty good meal by Russian standards. When we asked for the bill, the waiter approached us and asked Ryan if he could buy his hat from him. After a bit of haggling a deal was made for 1700 Roubles (nearly $50CAD…. he really wanted that hat) and we retired back down from the mountains to our hotel. A surreal end to a great night out.

‘Ryan sold his hat to a Russian waiter’ was the talk of the IPC office for a couple of days after this

Back on the coast, Paralympic Sport TV was running nicely and so I took the opportunity to go to an Ice Sledge hockey game, Russia vs Italy, at the Shaybar arena in the Olympic Park. A couple of days prior to this , President Putin had attended the Russia vs Korea match. When he turned up the Russian team were 2-0 up, but he sat and watched them concede 2 goals to take it to overtime and penalties, which they lost. The Shaybar was quite a compact arena, and the Paralympic family lounge, to which I had access with my AAA pass, was only the size of your average hotel lobby. Putin had been swept into the stadium via this lounge, and virtually taken it over with his entourage and security. One of my colleagues counted 31 cars outside the entrance! When he arrived in the arena, like with so many other appearances at the Games, he was greeted with a standing ovation. The Russian people really do seem to love him. Can you imagine David Cameron getting a standing ovation as he walked to his seat at the FA Cup final? No!

The Paralympic Family lounge at the Shaybar Arena – free everything!

I settled down to watch the game and the atmosphere was brilliant. If I had to recommend any Paralympic sport, Winter or Summer, then Ice Sledge Hockey would be high on the list. The pace the teams display is amazing considering everything they do is propelled through their upper body. And they hit each other… hard!

After the disappointing display in the last game in front of the great leader, the Russians were not going to lose this one. They eventually won it 7-0, which was greeted with huge noise from the Russian fans. They went on to reach the final and take the silver medal despite only forming the team a few years before Sochi 2014 – not bad for their first ever Paralympics!

Russian Fans cheer their team after a 7-0 win against Italy in the Ice Sledge Hockey group stage

Wandering around the Olympic Park the next day, I managed to get a feel for how much the Russians loved having the games in their country. Kids of course loved the facilities and the activities in the park, as well as the sport. Much like London 2012, the Sochi volunteers and staff were friendly and welcoming and the atmosphere in the park was great. So much effort goes into making the Games happen that the spectacle of the event is always special. I managed to get across to the exhibition centre to take a look at the Russian regional exhibitions which display the best of each of the vast Russian regions, including Krasnodar, the area in which Sochi is located. The highlight was definitely a spontaneous Russian dance off between young chap and an old woman in the Caucasus section!

Russian dancing in the exhibition centre

Russian fans in the park

A musical water fountain display under the Paralympic Flame

The broadcasts continued to go smoothly, thanks in part to the great team we had from all over the world. Brits, French, German, Argentinian, Polish. Spanish and Brazilian not to mention the Russian volunteers who helped us out. Despite the mix of nationalities, the common language is English so communication for wasn’t too testing. In fact, I’m ashamed to say my grasp of the various foreign languages did not improve during the games… except I can now speak half a dozen Russian words instead of the one or two I knew before I left the UK. This is all down to the international language of English. We are very lucky to speak it natively, although I’m sure Brits would soon learn to speak more languages if English wasn’t so prevalent in other countries. At least I can say thank you in Russian now though (Spasiba!)

Some of the Russian (and Polish!) volunteers who were clipping up Video on Demand for the IPC youtube channel. They were great fun and did a fantastic job.

A Russian volunteer and the international language of English

Apart from English, the one thing everyone has in common is the excitement of being at a Paralympic Games. Everyone comes into work with a spring in their step. It is the sport, the entertainment, the drama of the Games which I’ve always found to win over even the most unwilling staff. Broadcasting sport involves watching it of course, and you could not watch the Sochi Games without getting caught up in the excitement. Whether it was the record Russian medal haul, the incredible recovery win by Canada’s Brian McKeever in the Cross Country sprint, or the brilliant Ice Sledge Hockey tournament, the fact that you get to be part of such an amazing event makes this one of the best jobs I could ever think of doing. And I can’t wait for the next one!

The Paralympic Flame

Me at the Agitos in Rosa Khutor

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