It doesn’t take much to get on TV during the Winter Games in Sochi. All you need is a rat, a box and a couple of little flags, and you have yourself an Olympic oracle. Earlier this week, two biology students in the Siberian city of Tomsk were clever enough to figure that out. They put a rat in a box, called the rodent Shurik and said it could predict the results of Olympic hockey matches. State TV cameras came running to their dorm room and the rat was soon on the national news.
Things started to snowball for Shurik when his prediction turned out to be right. On Thursday morning, he sat down next to the bowl of raisins underneath the Russia tricolor — not the (almost identical) Slovenian tricolor — indicating that the home team would win. And a few hours later, they did, with a score of 5-2. At least a dozen other Russian media outlets then ran with the soothsaying rat story. One of the students who put Shurik in the box, Elizaveta Gul, explained the phenomenon this way: “Why do you think rats abandon a sinking ship first?” she reasoned. “They are smarter than us.”
Judging by the popularity and prevalence of these animal oracle stories, she may be right. In the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, the public relations officials at the local zoo pulled exactly the same trick this week with a female bunny named Varezhka. And it worked again. “First she ran to the bowl labeled Russia, spun around it a little bit, then ran to the Slovenia label,” said the zoo’s spokesman, Igor Permyakov, who gave the play by play. “However, she returned to the Russia label eventually.” And despite the rabbit’s flirtation with the rival flag, she got even more news coverage than Shurik the rat. Russia’s main state-run television channel, Vesti, featured her predictions prominently.
It’s hard to blame them. The most popular stories coming out of Sochi have not been about the athletes, the politics or the weather. They have been about the city’s stray dogs, and it is not the first time that creatures with more than two legs have dominated the coverage of a global sporting event. Remember Paul the German Octopus? He correctly predicted all seven of the matches that Germany played in the 2010 World Cup, and became an international superstar in the process. Tragically, he passed away a few months later, leaving a crucial vacancy in the Sochi Olympic line-up.
A pair of otters tried to fill it long before the rat and the rabbit came along. Not only were they cuter, but they had more western-sounding names – Harry and Ashley – as well as the added advantage of actually being in Sochi. Zhanna Zazina, the deputy head of the Sochi aquarium, claimed on Thursday that the otters had so far been correct in six of their seven predictions, which they make by choosing among a set of floating rings in a tank of water, each labelled with a different country.
The reporters on the story were unable to confirm this independently, but Ingrid Rylance, a self-proclaimed animal psychic in the United Kingdom, is unsurprised by the animals’ reported accuracy. All animals are potential soothsayers, she tells TIME. “They were here way before us. They have vast amounts of knowledge. They don’t use the telephone or Internet to communicate. They go straight to management, if you know what I mean,” says Rylance, who worked for 22 years in the pharmaceutical industry before she was made redundant two years ago and went into telepathy. According to her website, a psychic animal reading, as well as a psychic reading for people, both go for 40 pounds a pop, or about $67.
But the communications only work, she says, if the people involved are open to the “psychic energy” of the animals. When informed that this reporter is not open to the psychic energy, she ran a test over the phone line from her home in Swindon, U.K. “Are you wearing anything red?” No, nothing. “Do you have a baseball cap?” No. “Do you wear one sometimes?” Never. “Okay, well, maybe I can’t make a connection to you,” she said.
It was just as well. There seem to be plenty of journalists in Sochi more than eager to embrace the psychic energy of just about any creature, swimming or crawling, with a claim to predicting the Olympics. More than a week into the Games, the media center is getting restless and the features well is running dry. “We’re digging deep,” one American television producer complained to me the other day. “We’re trying to see if there’s something else we can do about the dogs.”
Meanwhile, humans are performing incredible feats all around us. Olympic speed skaters go faster than 40 miles per hour. Ski jumpers fly more than 200 meters through the air. The skeleton events send men and women flying head first down shoots of ice. But the idea of zoological clairvoyance still seems irresistible. So on Saturday, when Russia and the United States face off in hockey at one of the most exciting matches of the Games, Harry the otter will be the frosting on the journalistic cake. For the record, he’s predicting Team America to win.