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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Inside the Mind of a Russian-born American on the eve of the Olympics

    There are various reasons why sports fans decide to declare their allegiance to a certain team. Perhaps they live in or near the city that team represents, and have grown attached to that strip of land they call home. Or maybe they appreciate the style of play exemplified by a certain team: anyone who appreciates the rough, physical play typical of North American hockey found in Canada and the United States would have appreciated the “Broad Street Bullies” of the 1970s, as the furiously motivated Philadelphia Flyers dominated and intimidated the more finesse-oriented Soviet squad.
Or maybe it is a patriotic feeling-your country is sending its native athletes to play for honor and for glory.

    In a little more than two months, the world will look towards the Russian resort town of Sochi, as the spectacle of the Winter Olympics begins on February 7th. People of all races, origins, creeds, and orientations will raise their respective country’s banner in an effort to will them to victory. The chess match of international affairs will be stopped as friendly competition takes the stage.

    For some people, however, the lines of nationality and origin are not so obviously drawn. That is the case with me, especially in these specific Olympic Games. I was born in Moscow, the capital and largest city of Russia, and came to the US as an infant, where I have lived ever since.

    Culturally, I am very much an American. I’ve lived almost all my life in the United States, with American family, friends, and influences. But I have never forgotten my Russian roots.

    In the Summer Olympics, this is not much of a problem. There are not any sports I follow very closely in the Summer Games, and as evidenced by past Olympiads in London, Beijing, and Athens, I can count on both the Americans and Russians to pull in a large haul of medals of all colors. (In London, the US won the most total medals and Russia came in third) The American and Russian teams specialize in different events, and there is not much of a concrete rivalry between the two nations when the air is warm and pleasant. Of course, when it comes to summer sports, competition comes from the uniquely American sports of baseball and football, which do not occupy the stages of Olympic competition.

    But when the trees lose their leaves, snow covers the grounds, and ice rinks echo with the sounds of the fastest game on Earth, things change. I ski, and actively follow the sport of hockey.

    Now, watching skiing is more of a spectacle than a competition for me, likely because I do not ski competitively. When an American or Russian athlete steps up, ready to break out of the gates, I get excited and hope they medal, but I am more concerned with seeing the best of the best show the world the highest level of athleticism while coasting down whatever mountain they’re on.

    Hockey is a different story, however. Both the United States and Russia boast rich hockey history. The sport, a fantastic export from our Canadian neighbors, boasts massive popularity in both countries. When the American and Russian teams hit the ice in hockey tournaments these days, they both have tangible chances at victory-and at facing each other.

    So how does one decide who to root for in this type of scenario? Well, it boils down to this: I want both the Russian and American teams to succeed, and it’s of course difficult to pick a favorite when both could bring home the hardware. At the beginning of a tournament such as this, I start out, hoping for the best for both teams. If one team is knocked out, it’s unfortunate, but it also clears up my allegiances. In the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, Russia met Canada in the Quarterfinals and was roundly defeated, 7-3. The Canadians, with a rowdy and deliriously happy crowd behind them, looked as if they were three steps ahead of the Russian “Red Machine” for the vast majority of the game. It was a difficult game to stomach, especially since the Russkies had fallen behind early and stayed behind, not showing much fight at all. But what it did do was eliminate one of my teams. Now I could concentrate on the fortunes of the American team, who would eventually lose a heartbreaker to the Canadians in the final round.

If the American team makes it to the Gold medal game (playing someone other than Russia) you can bet your bottom dollar that come that final showdown, I will be draped in the Stars and Stripes, screaming and singing for Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, and Jonathan Quick to bring hockey gold home. The same applies to the Russian team.

Those circumstances depend on the American and Russian teams not meeting at some point in the tournament. So what if they do meet? And in what circumstances-will it be the Gold medal game or the Quarterfinals?

    Judging by the rosters put forward by Team USA and Team Russia, there’s a fairly good possibility that these two countries will meet in a high-stakes game. Both are awash in talent and potential. If these teams are to meet in a game that does not decide the awarding of a medal, it’s relatively easy for me to know what to do after the final siren sounds: whoever wins that game and advances.

    I know a USA-Russia showdown for Olympic Gold would be a dramatic, exciting, and fun-to-watch game that would make citizens of both countries flock to their nearest TV. The winner would be washed over in celebration and joy, and the loser will be heartbroken to lose to a longtime rival. But as much as it would help grow the game of hockey in both countries, it would be at least sixty minutes of conflicting feelings for myself. I’d be happy of course that one of the countries would win gold, but it’d be at the expense of my other team.

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