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SOCHI SCRIBBLINGS: Who's in the stands?

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SOCHI, Russia -

Who's in the stands?

At the men's downhill on Sunday, I expected a crowd-crowded busses, crowded cable cars, crowded walk to the venue, crowded stands. But as I began my journey to the Rosa Khutor alpine venue, I realized that I was either too early or maybe men's downhill, considered a premiere event at most Winter Olympic Games, was not as popular in Russia.

With 20 minutes to go until the first skier (Steve Nyman) came careening down the course, the stands were only half full. When Nyman left the gate, only about 80 percent of the seats were filled. For a little bit more than the price of a plane ticket to Sochi, as well as hotel, any of my ski-fan friends in Vermont could have seen Bode Miller miss a medal - though I have no idea how one gets a ticket here. I've heard rumor of a ticket office in Sochi, a train ride away. But I have had neither time nor inclination to verify this rumor.

The audience at every event that I've covered so far is mostly Russian, as evidenced by their waving flags. But there are pockets of Americans, Canadians, and other countries as well. With the three Dufour-Lapointe sisters in women's moguls and a cadre of dominating Canucks in men's moguls, Canadians have been particularly vocal at the two moguls competitions. But most of them appear to be friends and family of the Canadian skiers. After the Dufour-Lapointe sisters went 1-2 in women's moguls, they hopped all the media barriers to hug their parents in the stands.

The Russians however are not jingoistic in their cheering. They cheer for everyone and most loudly for the big names and their countrymen. At the downhill on Sunday, they were on their feet cheering as Bode Miller carved down the course. But when he crossed the finish line then in sixth place (he would end up eighth), the crowd went eerily quiet.

At men's moguls Monday night, when Alexandr Smyshlyaev won the bronze medal behind the Canadian duo of Alex Bilodeau and Mikael Kingsbury, the roar was like that of a loud band-deafening and pulsating with an extra thump of proud emotion. With only six World Cup top-threes on his resume and no Olympic or world championship hardware in his trophy cabinet, Smyshlyaev was a long shot for an Olympic medal. When it became clear that he would win a medal, Russians leapt into the air and the metal stadium, built like elaborate scaffolding, rumbled.

The Russians are also clearly happy to have to the Winter Games in their country, and they make the effort to attend, even if it means walking up and down a mountainside. To reach the alpine venue, spectators must climb 187 steps from the cable car and bus drop-off, then more stairs once they are in the stands.

To reach the Rosa Khutor extreme park, they must first walk down about a quarter-mile on concrete steps. After the event, they must climb back up this mountainside-probably the equivalent of walking up a 10-20-story building-some smoking cigarettes as they huff and puff back up to the cable car station. Of note, I heard no children whining.

The stands have been mostly full at figure skating, I heard, and I am guessing that the Bolshoi Ice Dome, home of ice hockey, is hosting a rowdy crowd. The Russian hockey team aims to win its first medal since they took the bronze at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games; they have not won gold since the 1992 Olympics, when they entered as the Unified Team (shortly after the breakup of the former Soviet Union). Against the powerful American and Canadian teams, loaded with NHL talent, a gold for the home team would be another miracle on ice.

If the Russian men's hockey team does make the gold medal game, forget what I said about jingoism.

To read my coverage of the Games, visit TeamUSA.org.

- Opening Ceremony-Russia's Dream: http://www.teamusa.org/Road-to-Sochi-2014/Features/2014/February/07/Opening-Ceremony-Russias-Dream

- Bittersweet bronze for Kearney: http://www.teamusa.org/Road-to-Sochi-2014/Features/2014/February/08/Bittersweet-Bronze-For-Kearney

- Miller misses medals: http://www.teamusa.org/Road-to-Sochi-2014/Features/2014/February/09/Miller-Misses-Medals

- Super Jules is 3rd in super combined: http://www.teamusa.org/Road-to-Sochi-2014/Features/2014/February/10/Super-Jules-Is-Third-In-Super-Combined

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