The relay lights the way


ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Moscow Avenue runs for 10 kilometers. It starts at Victory Square, commemorating the sacrifices of World War II. The street sees the Russian National Library. It carries past the House of Soviets, a major command post during the 900-day siege; out front is a massive statue of Lenin. The boulevard runs over the Fontanka River and then, finally, ends at Sennaya Square. Ten kilometers is roughly six miles. It rained on and off Sunday, the day the Olympic flame relay -- as it is formally known -- came to St. Petersburg. It was cold enough that already winter coats and hats were out. Even so, Moscow Avenue -- in Russian, Moskovksky Prospekt -- was jammed, the street lined on both sides, people everywhere and anywhere, just to get a glimpse of the flame.

They were literally hanging out of second-story windows. They were queueing at gas stations. They came sprinting out of a car dealership. Kids, and there were hundreds upon hundreds of kids,  waved flags and danced and pointed excitedly to their parents and uncles and aunts and teachers and didn't mind the rain and posed for pictures. The children acted -- well, like kids everywhere.

It has been nearly 30 years since Sting suggested in song that the Russians must love their children, too. The relay offers powerful proof of what the Sochi 2014 Games, which this week ticked under 100 days away, mean to this enormous, incredible country -- and, at the same time, an invitation to the rest of the world to find out about Russia beyond the well-worn stereotypes.

The Olympic flame in St. Petersburg, Russia // photo courtesy Sochi 2014

This has always been the power of the relay.

It symbolizes the better urge in the Olympic movement, the powerful impulse toward excellence, friendship and respect that is, in fact, universal.

Kids everywhere know that.

They knew it on my street in Hermosa Beach, California, in 1996 when I took my daughter, who was then 2 years old, out to see the relay go by right our house on its way to Atlanta for the Summer Games and all the neighbor kids were screaming and yelling in excitement.

Just like they did Sunday in St. Petersburg, Russia.

For much of the rest of the world, the onset of the 2014 Winter Games has meant a rash of controversies: a vague new law purporting to ban homosexual "propaganda" to young people, $50 billion and counting in construction, worries over snow or no, concerns over terrorism, all of it overseen by the face of today's Russia, the president himself, Vladimir Putin.

That catalogue underscores a simple truth: the Russians have not done themselves many, if any, PR favors.

Fundamentally, however, the wonder -- after four visits to Russia in not even six months -- is how much of what gets spun up about this country is still rooted all these many years after the end of the Cold War in what can often seem like an enduring dread, if not outright fear, in many quarters of the press.

Of all the stories and all the broadcasts, how many are from reporters who have ever set even one foot in Russia?

Russia takes time and effort. In today's 24/7, what-have-you-got-for-me-now news-cycle, those are resources that can seem most difficult to justify.

Russia is not, in a word, easy. It's not easy to get to; travel visas have traditionally been complicated and expensive. Moreover, once here, the language barrier is often ferocious. Even the alphabet is different.

Sochi itself, way down by the Black Sea,  is hard to get to. Where do you want to transfer through? Moscow? Istanbul? Vienna?

Then there is Putin, who is typically viewed as The Action Man One Dares Not Cross -- for fear he is at all times carrying plutonium-laced sushi, or something, in his pocket. Or, if he is back to riding shirtless on a horse, in his boots. Who knows?

These absurd caricatures are completely at odds with the Putin that the French ski legend Jean-Claude Killy, the International Olympic Committee's primary liaison with Russia and the Sochi 2014 project, described in a recent story in the French weekly Journal du Dimanche.

"The Putin I know is not the one described in the newspapers, where you see real 'Putin-bashing,' " Killy told the paper.

Killy added, "I have no reason to follow the crowd; I trust what I see. When he calls me from Moscow at three in the morning his time to wish me a happy birthday, I find that nice."

It's not that there is an essential misunderstanding in the west of Putin or, more broadly, of Russia.

There seems to be almost no understanding.

This, then, is the opportunity the Sochi 2014 Games present -- if, and this is a big it, the Russians themselves understand it is at hand.

And -- if they care, and want to do something about it.

To be clear:

There is much to criticize about the Sochi project. And there remains the potential for terrorism or other catastrophe that could further re-shape forever the way the 2014 Games are seen or understood.

At the same time, the relay lights the way toward a new understanding, the possibility that -- over time -- things can change. This is the promise and potential of the Olympic movement in every country it touches.

That said, change takes time, especially fundamental change, and especially in a vast and complicated place like Russia.

Consider, for example, this exchange on Monday between Putin and the newly elected IOC president, Thomas Bach, at the Adler Railway Station, one of the infrastructure facilities built for the 2014 Games. Adler is the town immediately next to Sochi.

"Sochi and the entire region have come a long way in their development over these last years, and successfully, too," Bach said. "This makes a deep impression on us. The Olympic sites will contribute to making the Sochi Olympics unique in the movement's history, and the facilities will offer sportspeople the best possible conditions."

Putin, a moment or two later, said, "It seems to me that you liked the railway station, too?"

Bach: "I more than liked it, not just for its functionality, but for its architecture, too. It impresses me very much that you were able to build this railway station in just four years. Aside from the architecture and the unique solutions to link the old and new stations, I was also impressed by the way the facilities have been designed to allow people with disabilities to use them. I learned today, for example, that a special path has been laid in the terminal for the visually impaired. I think this is an optimistic sign for the future, a sign that shows how architecture and construction are developing in general in Russia.

"Of course, this new station will be used after the Olympics, too, and will become part of the Olympic heritage not just for Sochi but for the whole country."

Putin: "Yes, I wanted to say the same words. It will be an important part of the Olympics' legacy."

Is this revolutionary? No.

Is this important stuff? Yes, just like the handicap ramps that were built as a design feature into a nearby hockey arena, also a new idea in Russia.

A recycling program for water bottles -- a new idea.

Another new idea -- the volunteer program that will make the Games go in a country that previously had no volunteer culture.

On a Sunday morning in St. Petersburg, there they were by the dozens in their blue vests, 2014 volunteers, out in the rain, seeing the relay down Moscow Avenue and beyond, bringing the Olympic flame to a part of Russia nearly 1,450 miles away from Sochi. They made lifetime memories for literally thousands of people, and so many kids.

It was not even seven years ago, the summer of 2007, that Sochi was bidding for the 2014 Games. To have imagined such a scene then -- truly, it was unthinkable.