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Words by Phoebe St John
Illustration by Cameron Baker

With its ginormous mountains, wacky uniforms, extravagant arenas and continuous controversies, this year’s Winter Olympics held in Sochi, Russia, sometimes felt a million miles away from Melbourne. But that’s not entirely the case. This year, two University of Melbourne students proudly donned the green and gold to represent Australia and achieve their Olympic dreams on the snowy Sochi slopes.

25-year-old ski cross racer and Masters of Property student, Katya Crema, couldn’t have been happier with her experience. “Representing Australia in my second Olympic Games was an amazing feeling,” she tells me. “I came into Sochi with a completely different approach to Vancouver. This time around, being my second Olympics and with a few extra years of experience, the focus was all about the race.”

Meanwhile, it was the first time at an Olympics for 20-year-old freestyle mogul skier and Bachelor of Environments student, Brodie Summers. “I was immensely proud to wear the Aussie colours on the biggest sporting stage in the world,” he says. Summers names the Closing Ceremony as a particular highlight, calling the event “the most surreal experience I’ve ever had.”

While many of us spent last year locked up in the Baillieu on a diet of salted caramel crepes, coffee and Facebook procrastination, these two trained intensely all over the world in preparation for competition. Summers lists Sydney, Mt Buller, Canada’s Whistler, Steamboat Springs in the USA, and Switzerland as his training locations. He emphasises the work ethic and commitment involved in his intense moguls preparation, from strength and conditioning to water ramping. Similarly, Crema’s training for Sochi was a four-year process. “On-snow training consists of basic skiing skills and drills, gates training, jumping in the terrain park, free skiing, starts and obviously ski cross course specific training,” she explains. “Off-snow training out of the ski season is almost more time-consuming than on-snow training. In the lead up to the Games in the off-season, I was doing 12 dry-land sessions per week.”

Finishing 13th in the men’s moguls finals at Sochi, Summers was thrilled to be on the team. “My expectations going into the Games were simply to ski to the best of my ability,” he says. “I had only qualified to be there [at the Games] at the last World Cup of the season just a few weeks beforehand. Just being there was the best motivation for me to work as hard as I can to make sure I’m standing on that podium four years from now in Korea.”

Crema also did incredibly well, with a seventh place result in the women’s ski cross. “I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself at important races like the Olympic Games or World Championships. I seem to perform better,” she says. “Even with a shaky start to the season after a knee injury in the first World Cup in November, my goal was a top 8 result. My world ranking coming into the Games was 20th, so you definitely couldn’t say I was a favourite. I feel like I gave it my absolute best effort on the day, and finished with a 7th place result. It is extremely satisfying to come home having achieved my goal.”

As for the quirks of their time in the ever-controversial country, the athletes’ memories of the St Tropez of Russia are nothing but positive. Although admitting he was probably in a bit of a security bubble, Summers maintained that the Sochi infrastructure “was a great investment … and a great show for the world to see. I hope it boosts the appeal of winter sport for people around Australia.”

Crema agrees. “Russia put on an incredible event. Sochi was the first Winter Olympics in a very long time to host every single snow event on the same mountain. The competition venues were world-class.”

While Crema mentions activities such as babushka doll painting as a fun introduction to Russian culture in the Olympic Village, Summers speaks particularly fondly of another aspect of their accommodation. “I think the standout part of the village was the McDonald’s … I have never eaten so much McDonald’s in my life!” he laughs. “Definitely a popular place for athletes to go after their events—don’t tell our coaches!”

Spots in the Olympic team are undeniably competitive, but Summers is adamant he’ll be back for the next Winter Games held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. “Competing in Sochi was an incredibly motivating experience for me. I want to make sure I use the next four years as best I can so that when I arrive in Pyeongchang in 2018 I am ready to win a medal.” As for Crema? She’s planning on taking a well-earned season off to focus on her Masters here at Melbourne before tackling the upcoming World Cup winter.

World-class athletes studying among us? We couldn’t be more proud.

Words by Phoebe St John

It’s time. Dust off that mink coat, retrieve your finest Russian vodka, and switch on ye olde telly box, because the 22nd Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, have officially begun.

If you’re anything like me, Russian geography isn’t exactly your speciality, so allow me to enlighten you of the Olympics’ whereabouts. Sochi is a city in the Krasnodar Krai territory just north of Georgia, along the border of the Black Sea directly opposite Turkey. This city, which boasts a population of 400,000, is apparently so far removed from the icy throes of winter it is affectionately labelled the “Russian Riviera”, or the Florida of Russia. Famously remembered as the location of Stalin’s summer home, some news sources have even gone so far as to call Sochi “subtropical” and “balmy”. Temperatures rarely drop below 8 degrees Celsius, and at press time, there was no snow to be seen other than in the 500 faux snow guns specially imported from Finland. Yes, a seaside town seems a questionable choice for a Winter Olympics in an otherwise arctic Russia, particularly if it means Speedos could be involved.

Still, who are we to judge? No doubt these Games will be spectacular, if its total expenditure of US$50 billion is anything to go by. President Putin is footing the bill of one of the costliest Olympics of all time, with brand spanking new infrastructure including the Fisht stadium, rumoured at 14 times over its initial budget, and some highly fascinating double toilets. For the next ten days, we will watch as 6,000 athletes from 85 countries compete in 89 events and, according to CNN, consume 265,000 litres of Russian borscht in their Olympic Village. More importantly, we will see some outrageous uniforms that may make you simultaneously snort and cry (Norway, anyone?), and even the return of another Jamaican bobsled team, “Cool Runnings” style. We’ve already witnessed the Olympic torch being shot into space and completing a space walk, so no doubt future Games antics will be, well, out of this world.

Still, not everything about this Winter Olympics is as pure as the driven snow (oh yes, pun definitely intended). Russia’s recently adopted, draconian legislation banning gay “propaganda” to minors has been internationally criticised, with the global spotlight now shining on Russia’s LGBTQI community. With politically motivated social conservatism at a momentous high, things are unbelievably tough for gay and lesbian people in Russia right now. There are widespread calls for the criminalisation of homosexuality, only encouraged by public figures, such as TV anchor Dmitriy Kiselyov, and growing anti-gay violence in city centres. As a result, it seems calls for boycotting the Winter Games have quite literally snowballed. 27 Nobel laureates have signed a letter demanding a repeal of the laws essentially denying homosexuality. A 200,000 signature strong petition headed by Amnesty International has condemned Putin’s new legislation ahead of the Games. Even the International Olympic Committee asked its Russian organisers last week to respect press freedom and freedom of speech during the event, when it comes to athletes speaking out about the controversial legislation.

When coupled with the country’s already controversial political situation, threats of terrorism, and the 150th anniversary of the Circassian genocide, Putin may have hit a bit of an iceberg. Barack Obama, Francois Hollande, Angela Merkel and David Cameron, to name a few, have announced they will not be attending the Games as spectators, citing the Kremlin’s anti-gay legislation as highly contrary to the Olympic spirit (China’s leader Xi Jinping will be attending, however- his third trip to Russia in just 12 months). While the United States is not withdrawing their team, Obama has made a statement of sending openly gay LGBTQI sportsmen along to Sochi. “If Russia doesn’t have gay or lesbian athletes, then that would probably make their team weaker,” he said in August.

None of this seems to be an issue, of course, because Sochi mayor Anatoly Pakhomov has told the BBC in an interview that aside from foreign tourists, there are no homosexuals in his city (and don’t we all believe that?). Luckily, then, it appears no one will have the urge to protest at Sochi. But if they were to, surely any one of the 37,000 security officers deployed for the Winter Olympics could step in and, er, break the ice.

Thankfully, Russia’s horrific treatment of their gay and lesbian community hasn’t deterred too many athletes from going for gold. “I want to be proud of who I am and be proud of all the work I’ve done to get into the Olympics,” openly gay Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff revealed in a recent interview.  And she’s not too pleased with President Putin. “After I compete, I’m willing to rip on his ass,” she has said.

This is the first time Russia has held a Winter Olympics, and it seems the event is already sending chills down some international spines. So, the expected global television audience of 3 billion waits with bated (foggy) breath for news of the shenanigans in the snowy city by the sea.