Thursday, August 29, 2013

Turn Right at Horse

Moscow has not exactly extended the welcome mat for these World Championships of Track and Field.

If this is a model for how Russia plans to welcome the world for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, billions will be watching as infrastructure, information, and management snafus accumulate to embarrass the hosts.

Not to mention the damage the host country’s position on gays - and its dig-in-the-heels response to worldwide blowback on this issue - has already created.

What will it be like in Sochi when the US joins the rest of the world watching the Winter Olympics? If these championships are a preview, those games are in trouble.

Much is made of the low attendance plaguing this meet.

Let’s do the math.

There are upwards of 12,000,000 people in Moscow.

The stadium, which can hold 82,000, is reconfigured for this event to hold about half that number, around 40,000.

40,000 out of 12,000,000 is .0035 of 1% of Moscow’s population.

99.9965% of Moscow can stay home and still the stadium will be full.

Even Usain Bolt can't attract a full house for Sunday evening's 100m final.

A frequently recurring analysis is that it’s vacation time in Russia and Muscovites are at their country dachas. Even pole vault king Sergey Bubka subscribes to a version of this, saying the persistent sunshine has drawn people away.

The socioeconomics - and logic - of this argument are distressing. How many can afford vacation homes when it’s expensive enough to afford one small apartment in Moscow? Are 12 million really on vacation?

If the traffic during my two taxi rides to the stadium is any indication, not exactly all of Moscow has fled to the countryside. Furthermore, many of the stadium seats were occupied by visitors like me - not to mention the thousands of wildly enthusiastic Ukrainians.

The crowds grow during the week, and the IAAF releases attendance figures that compare favorably to the 2011 Worlds in Daegu where… they closed off half the stadium in an unsuccessful effort to make it look more crowded.

That's two championships in a row. Is anyone listening?

Once inside Luzhniki Stadium, the obvious is begged.

Programs and dailies are difficult if not impossible to find. When was the last time you were in a stadium watching an event whose total worldwide viewership is estimated at 5 billion - and the seat rows and numbers were written on the backs of each chair in magic marker? This was true in section D on the second weekend, much to the consternation of hopelessly lost natives as well as visitors.

How nice it would be to see the shotputters. Not just the implement flying out from behind a sign, but how about the throwers as well? It’s a little like watching the skis of a ski jumper without the skier attached.

One afternoon I sleep through my alarm and dash to the Metro, groggy. I turn left when I should have turned right and end up nine stops away from the stadium. I miss the men’s steeplechase; this is damaging.

I do understand full well the responsibility of the tourist (me) to travel well; that is, to be prepared for travel in the host country. Yet even universally recognized diagrams or symbols – of the stadium posted on its subway stops, for example – would indicate some effort on the hosts’ part to make life easier on the visitors whose funds and endorsement they so eagerly seek.

If anyone saves the Sochi Games games it will be the people of Russia who extended themselves to me and others to help us get where we were going (and I will write about these trip and soul-saving wonders in my next post). A man with a tablet saves the day by taking the time to call up a map, and he redirects me to the stadium.

I bow, deeply, in gratitude. I still see the women’s 1500m, so all is not lost.

On the day of the men’s 50k walk, I encounter the foulest portable toilet offense of my traveling life. What would it take to establish and keep a regular schedule of cleaning these?

Hosts note: these are things your guests remember.

Exiting the stadium becomes a patience tester. The stands are emptied one section at a time. On two nights it takes well over twenty minutes to be released; some fans report thirty.

Soldiers in uniform guard the exits.


They are inflexible with their exit policy.

Once outside the stadium, the meager fan zone begs comparison not only to previous Worlds but to other major meets. Eugene’s 2012 Olympic Trials fan zone far exceeded this one in terms of welcome and engagement. In Eugene, I wanted to stay and explore. Here, there is no place designed to encourage people to gather, and we walk towards the Metro stop.

There, we are greeted by two long lines of soldiers and are funneled towards the subway entrance. I want to bail out to the right to join friends at a nearby restaurant. A young woman in uniform surveys the situation, denies my request, and says, “Turn right at horse.”

I look up.

Indeed, much farther along, another young woman - part of the equestrian corps - is in full military regalia atop an enormous beast near the Metro stop.

I march by dozens of soldiers and do, in fact, turn right at horse.

I understand full well the need for security as well as crowd control. But for crowd control you would need, well… a crowd.

*  *  *

On the second night, still not confident of my Metro-in-Cyrillic abilities,
I take a cab to Luzhniki Stadium.

As we arrive the driver turns to me and says enthusiastically,

“Stadion!!! Football - yes?!"

If the cabbies don’t know the World Championships are in town…

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