Joel Reichenberger: Navigating nyet in Russia

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— I was able to check another item off my Olympics bucket list Friday afternoon.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I saw Matt Lauer, who is, when you eliminate everyone with an eye infection, the longtime face of the Olympics thanks to his position on NBC’s Today show.

2014 Winter Olympics

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Slopeside at Sochi: Joel Reichenberger

Steamboat Pilot & Today Sports Editor Joel Reichenberger is on the sidelines in Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Find more columns, stories, blogs and photo galleries at SteamboatToday.com/sochi.

After spending the late afternoon working on a photograph in Olympic Park, I was heading for a bus stop, walking around the glittering Bolshoy Ice Dome, when I stumbled on — or stumbled near, at least — the Today Show set. The whole gang was there: Al Roker, Savannah Guthrie, Willie Geist and, yep, Matt Lauer.

I didn’t get close, of course, though I got yelled at twice for trying.

Getting yelled at twice in any one effort actually is a fairly successful outing for the Olympics.

Indeed, not all security guards are as friendly as the one at our hotel, Alex. (Although, he may be too friendly. He’s been worried, and it’s not 100 percent clear why. Once, it sounded like he was getting transferred to a nicer hotel because he has manageable English. Another time it sounded like he might get fired. He implored us to talk him up to the front desk, and we obliged.)

Anyway, it’s nearly impossible to navigate these games without earning stern rebukes from Russians for violating rules that vary between well-posted to seemingly imagined.

Getting yelled at actually has even helped me learn Russian. For instance, “NO! Against the rules!” is Russian for “Ohhh, I apologize, fine sir. We really wish you wouldn’t do that.”

Who knew, right? At least I assume that’s what they’re saying. The phrase comes across a little more intense in Russian than in English.

On Friday, I was trying to violate the rule against walking up a walkway to the concourse at Bolshoy Ice Dome, home to Olympic hockey games, where fans were mingling and where the Today Show was broadcasting.

I didn’t want to go inside, I explained. I wanted to get to where all those other people were walking.

“Against the rules!”

And just think these joyful Russians used to be known for being strict and mean.

I didn’t press the point. That doesn’t do you a lot of good, I’ve discovered.

On Thursday, I got reprimanded while photographing curling. I stood behind a rope line set up for photographers, snapping away as the British team was getting the best of the American men.

“Against the rules!”

“What’s against the rules?” I asked.

“Boundary! Against the rules!”

Perhaps I looked like I was thinking of crossing the rope line? I’ll work on that.

You’ve got to be careful about looking like you’re thinking about doing something, though. That very sin earned me a lecture from an American public relations agent earlier in the week.

Following the directions of one of the Russian venue coordinators, I was standing near where the athletes were filing by, waiting to head back to the press work area via the route I had come.

Standing. Waiting.

“You can’t come back here,” she said.

“Ever?” I asked, confused by the conflicting report on a path I’d trod four or five times already that day and the Russian bigwig I’d spoken to second before.

“Maybe in a few hours.”

OK. I guess I’ll find a different way.

Indeed, there’s a guard at every door, one manning every gate, one watching every path, waiting to explain what’s against the rules.

In defense of all the above — or most of them, anyway — people no doubt test the limits on every rule here. Occasionally, a policy of starting toward the goal and waiting to be told you’re in the wrong is the only way to get something done.

And there is some leniency, even among those Russians (who, kidding aside, remain generally happy and helpful.) On Friday afternoon, as I rode back to Krasnaya Polyana after hanging out with my buddy Matt (Matt Lauer for those of you who don’t know him as I do), an Associated Press photographer got on our bus instead of the bus that runs around the Olympic Park.

One takes you to the venues for things such as figure skating, ice hockey and speed skating. It’s about a 15-minute loop from the main coastal cluster media center.

The other bus, mine, takes you an hour into the mountains, meaning at the very least a two-hour round trip.

That’s a big mistake to make and one likely to cause him to miss whatever event he was hoping to be at in five minutes.

We weren’t more than a few yards away from the bus stop when he realized this, but it’s no small thing to open a bus from a clean zone after it’s been sealed, the door taped shut with a sticker so as to indicate to security on the other end whether there are any unexpected newcomers.

After much pleading and some help from the only American I’ve seen here fluent in Russian, the driver had mercy and popped open the door.

That, of course, didn’t sit well with the security guards on the other end of our ride, and we were held up about 10 more minutes as they tried to make sense of the broken tape, the wrong numbers and the story.

That’s frustrating when we have our own events to get to, but considering it from one rule-breaker to another, I guess I’ll give him a break.

Slopeside in Sochi is written by Steamboat Today reporters Joel Reichenberger and Luke Graham, who are in Russia covering the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, and Penny Fletcher, mother of Steamboat Springs Nordic combined Olympic skiers Bryan and Taylor Fletcher. Visit SteamboatToday.com/sochi to read more Slopeside in Sochi blog posts.

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9

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