CBC Sports Weekend host Scott Russell is on the scene as the venues for the Sochi Olympics begin to take shape in the rainy city along the Black Sea.
It takes an eternity to get here.
The voyage to this place requires three flights and the total travel time is about 22 hours, not counting taxis to and from airports.
Sochi is on the Black Sea, in the south of Russia, and northeast of Istanbul, Turkey.
Almost none of the signs that greet visitors are in English and even fewer of the locals speak that language. Upon arrival it seems mysterious, feels very foreign and seems, in that sense, to be incredibly refreshing because it's quite different than most things I've experienced in the past.
It rains a lot here and the trip to the hotel demands passage through a giant construction zone overwhelmed by mud and potholes.
There are more building cranes than I've ever seen. The number might even surpass what I witnessed in Beijing in advance of the 2008 Games and that's saying something. It strikes me that in erecting an Olympic Park in Sochi someone had the bright idea to build a brand new city. They might have envisioned the ability to create Shangri-La from nothing.
They have, to be honest, a long way to go to achieve their goal.
All that said, as the sun rose on my first day here, there was a startling and unanticipated revelation.
The venues are absolutely and unquestionably spectacular.
Let's talk about the Coastal Cluster.
There are six brand new stadiums and arenas within a short walking distance of each other. The short track speed skating test event was held this past weekend at the Iceberg Skating Palace and Canada's Charles Hamelin looked to be in tip top form. He won the 500-metre gold medal by a whisker and then dominated the 1000 final. Hamelin has now been on the podium in nine of 10 races in what has been an incredible season so far.
But Hamelin was taking note of this sporting stage, which gleams an icy blue as its name suggests, a place where he is targeting the defence of an Olympic gold medal title in about a year's time.
"Sochi is under construction. There is dirt and building everywhere. It's hard to picture what it's going to be like in a year," Hamelin admitted. "But the building is great, the ice is good, our rooms are comfortable and we're having an enjoyable time here."
And for Charles Hamelin that's probably what matters most.
An Olympic 1st
His competitive forum is exactly as he hoped it would be. As a matter of fact, the Iceberg Skating Palace marks the first instance in which a Winter Olympic venue has been constructed with his sport in mind along with figure skating. This is not some converted hockey rink but a sheet of ice for racing and jumping on.
Hamelin's teammate Marie-Eve Drolet concurs.
"I love the ice. It feels good on my skates," she said. "The colours of the arena are perfect. Blue is a very positive colour. I love the way I feel when I look at it."
The same can be said of the Adler Arena. It will host long-track speed skating and it sparkles with readiness. Adler will stage the World Single Distance Skating Championships in March and every effort has been made to ensure the surface is conducive to great performance.
That might be a stretch considering Sochi is a humid place with a temperate climate and only slightly above sea-level.
The roof of Adler has been lavishly insulated to keep the moisture out and the cold in. The surface is pristine and obviously well cared for.
"Speed skating ice is the most challenging of ice," acknowledged the venue manager Dimitri Grigoriev. "In this sport it's the ice that makes the result."
Onto the Bolshoy Ice Dome where the men's hockey tournament will be played as well as the women's gold medal match. "The best rink in the country," boasted Grigoriev.
And it's easy to see why. On top of the action
There are 12,000 places close to the ice and the pitch of the bowl is steep.
As a spectator, you feel like you're right on top of the action. The seats are a granite colour and the concourses are luxurious, complete with azure glass beneath the railings which spiral to the upper reaches.
In Russian, Bolshoy means "big", but the word to most of us in North America conjures up an association with the ballet. This hockey rink has that kind of an aura. It foreshadows that you are about to enter a place of spectacular performance and at night the massive, curved roof is illuminated with dancing, exterior lights.
The Ice Cube Curling Centre is ready to go as is the Shayba Arena which will host women's hockey as well as sledge hockey during the Paralympics. Shayba, by the way, is Russian for "puck" and Shaybu, is a traditional cheer that partisan fans use to encourage their teams during international play.
Hockey will be the main attraction in Sochi and you can already see that the arenas fit the bill.
Only the Fischt Stadium, with a capacity of 40,000, is yet to be completed. It will host the opening and closing ceremonies as well as medal presentations. Fischt, you can tell, will be grandiose and it will remain a centrepiece venue for Russian sport when it hosts matches during the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
The Canadian Olympic Committee already has members of its delegation arriving in Sochi for the year out celebrations on February 7. I ran into one of them on my second day here.
"It's athlete friendly for sure," said Brian Edey of the COC sport department. "To be able to build everything from scratch and put the venues in close clusters is a huge deal because it means the athletes are the priority."
All of which leads me to believe first impressions can be deceiving.
Amidst the proliferation of mud there is magnificence to the emerging Olympic City. The diamonds in the rough are the venues themselves.
It's evident to me that the fields of play will matter most at the Russian home Olympics.
Scott brings vast experience, passion and knowledge to his role as host of CBC's Sports Weekend on CBC. A 20-year CBC Sports veteran, Russell has covered nine Olympic Games and co-hosted Olympic Morning for Beijing 2008: The Olympic Games. The Gemini-Award winning broadcaster and acclaimed author has also worked as a host and rinkside reporter on Hockey Night in Canada and has covered triathlon, gymnastics, rugby, cross-country skiing and biathlon at several Olympic Games, Pan Am Games and Commonwealth Games.
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