At first the guy manning the coffee machine didn’t understand what I wanted. Then he took a shifty look around, nodded conspiratorially and left me standing in the NHL’s private box during the Olympic hockey game in Sochi last night. All I wanted was a beer. It took several minutes, long enough for Sweden to extend its lead over the Czech Republic by a goal, for the barista to return from some kind of secret storage room with two Russian tallboys. They were the only ones to be found inside the Bolshoi Ice Dome that night.
The Olympic Charter — the document where all the lofty principles of the Games are codified — does not allow alcoholic beverages to be sold at the competitions, which makes the role of spectator a lot more, well, sober than it would be during a regular night at the rink or the ballpark. Making matters worse — or better, depending on your perspective — Russia has been taking its Olympic healthy streak well beyond what the charter requires. Not only is there no beer sold at Sochi’s Olympic venues, there are no fried foods, no hot dogs (Russians love hot dogs!) and no potato chips. The snack stands were selling brioche at the stadium last night along with cucumber and turkey sandwiches. That was about it.
For anyone who has spent any time living in Russia, this feels like an aberration. The Russian word for an appetizer — zakuska — means chaser, because you are meant to consume it with vodka. A typical Russian “salad” consists mostly of mayonnaise, of which there is no low-fat variety sold. Other classic dishes tend to be doubly fried, then covered in cheese and more mayonnaise and, for that little bit of freshness, hit with a fistful of dill. Apart from a few insanely expensive shops and restaurants in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia does not do organic.
Worst of all, most of the male population smokes, which helps explain why the average lifespan for a Russian man is 64 years, roughly the same as in Madagascar. But Sochi is trying to be different, at least during the Olympic Games. At the door of the brand-new train station in Adler, the town in greater Sochi where most of the Olympic stadiums have been built, a gentle voice comes over an intercom to tell the travelers approaching the metal detectors, “Sochi is a smoke-free city. Please refrain from smoking in public places and all Olympic venues.” In Moscow, you can smoke by the bathrooms of the Bolshoi Theater, not to mention in restaurants and bars. But in Sochi’s Olympic Village, smoking inside is prohibited, and a pack of cigarettes is far more difficult to find than a pair of stray dogs.
Roustam Tariko, the billionaire liquor magnate who owns Russian Standard vodka, sums up the sense of this nicely: “The Games are all about health.” Last year, his company sold 26 million cases of booze, he told me. But at an Olympic opening party last week, his promotional booth was confined to a back room, behind two layers of security, and well out of sight. He might have liked to be a sponsor of the Games, he said by the bar, swaying a little with the music and a vodka caipirinha. “But we have to keep a low profile here.”
So, apparently, does anything connected to Russia’s traditional vices, which have been banished from the Olympic wonderland President Vladimir Putin built. Although he did enjoy a bit of schnapps with the Austrian delegation to the Games last week, he prefers beer to spirits, does not smoke and has long made healthy living his mantra. To promote it, he once showed up at a hip-hop concert to support break dancing as a form of exercise. “I do not think that ‘top-rock’ or ‘down-rock’ break-dance technique is compatible with alcohol or drugs,” he told the competitors at the “Battle for Respect.” He did not, however, bust any sort of moves.
This weekend, the one exception to the Olympic sobriety streak could be found at the top of the Mountain Carousel, the only ski resort near Sochi that is open during the Games. (The rest are hosting competitions.) The penultimate ski lift at that resort lands you right near a vodka tent featuring a bar made of ice and a cauldron of stiff grog. Many of the skiers, though, seemed to have their own pocket flasks, so the shots were not flowing as quickly as Vitaly the barman had hoped. “But we’ll be here throughout the Games,” he said. “After that we’ll see if we’re still needed.”
Maybe they won’t be. If the Olympic health obsession lasts in Russia, maybe the love of sports will finally out-wrestle the national love of booze and cigarettes. It would be hard to imagine a greater Olympic legacy than that. But still, when the U.S. and Russia face off at hockey on Saturday, it wouldn’t kill anyone to sell a few hot dogs at the stadium.