The Olympics are over and the torch extinguished, but it’s still surreal to think that I was there during the first week. Along with 27 others from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., I got to report from Sochi on the Winter Olympic Games as part of an immersive learning program. Our group, BSU at the Games, operated as a freelance news agency, with 28 student journalists on the ground in Sochi and 13 back in Indiana.
We traveled from Indiana to Sochi over the course of three days. To escape an imminent snowstorm, we left a day early and had to stay in Amsterdam because our visas would not let us in a day early to Russia. We then flew to Moscow where we had to stay another night before finally flying to Sochi.
We lived on a docked cruise ship, so we got to escape the disasters of unfinished hotel rooms and contaminated water. We took over a lounge on the ship and used it as our office space. The Wi-Fi was abysmal, but we were still able to turn out some great stories.
Armed with nothing but tickets to events and the Olympic Park, we had limited access compared to other reporters. We worked with media outlets such as our local NBC affiliate, The Chicago Tribune, the Advocate, Colorado Springs Gazette and The Spokesman Review out of Spokane, Wash. Most of the outlets had reporters on the ground covering sports and medal ceremonies, but they didn’t have anyone covering the culture of Sochi. That’s where we came in.
The first day in Sochi, we had to hit the ground running. We had just gotten in, eaten dinner, before we left to talk to people just behind the barriers at the Opening Ceremonies. It was one of those exhilarating moments in a new place where no one speaks your language and you have to come up with a story.
We covered everything from the stray dog problem to Sochi’s most popular gay bar.
We went into Cabaret Mayak nervous about the anti-gay law and didn’t really know what to expect. When the owner told us he had never been threatened with violence and that he had even been asked by the mayor to help make Sochi a great place to visit, we were able to relax a little. Despite the law, Cabaret Mayak was just like any gay bar I have been to in the States. The crowded space made it difficult to maneuver, but exciting to be a part of. There were six other media teams trying to capture a new and interesting side of the same story there with us, too. We were brushing elbows with BBC and the Associated Press.
We made our way to the crowded stage just as the whole bar began singing the national anthem of Russia. The first drag queen up, Zaza Napoli, captured the attention of the audience with a performance of “I Will Survive.” After she finished, she walked over to me, said hello, grabbed my crotch and said something to the audience in Russian. Rough translation: “Oh, we got a big one!” It was one of those moments that will not easily be forgotten.
We worked on the story and photos when we got back and interviewed the two queens that started the drag scene in Sochi. We then pitched the story and photos as a package deal to The Advocate, which they decided to run. My blog post about my experience at the bar got some attention from Poynter and MediaBistro’s FishBowlNY. The headline on the item from MediaBistro was “Sochi drag queen manhandles Ball State student.”
The time difference was probably the hardest part to the whole trip. We were nine hours ahead of Indiana, so we could not post when things actually happened. Instead, we had to post much later when people were awake, and after it aired back home. This made for very long nights and early mornings.
Many people were worried about our safety, but we felt completely secure. Between three security checks just to get onto our cruise ship and the complete pat downs whenever we took the train, we were put at ease.
Our time there was short, but it’s one of those experiences that will stick with us for the rest of our lives. These photos capture our experience as student journalists covering one of the world’s biggest events.