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Sochi fills suitcase with memories

SOCHI, Russia — During the closing USOC news conference Saturday, someone asked if high TV ratings in “snowbound” northern U.S. markets might inspire the U.S. to put in a bid to host the 2026 Winter Games.

“We're talking to a handful of cities to determine if a 2024 bid is in the interest of the U.S.,” said Scott Blackmun, CEO of the USOC. “If not, we'll shift our analysis to whether a 2026 bid makes sense.”

Wait a second. Snowbound cities in the north? Great TV ratings for the Games? Why not push for a Winter Olympics in Buffalo?

OK, I'm kidding. Sort of. I know keeping the Bills in town is all that really matters. Of course, a sparkling, state-of-the art football stadium wouldn't be a bad spot for an Opening Ceremonies, would it?

Are we really so much different from Sochi? The population here is about 340,000, or roughly what Buffalo had 20 years ago. Sochi's latitude is slightly higher. But come on, we're a much more legitimate winter location. We could co-host with Ontario.

We have snow and bitter cold in February. Sochi is a subtropical resort. The average temperature during the day these last two weeks was over 60. People were riding the media buses to events because it was too hot to walk.

The real reason we should host an Olympics, though, is it makes visitors feel good about your city. Who knew about Sochi before the Russians put the Games here? It was some place where the Soviet leaders used to relax and concoct ways to defeat capitalism.

Now, people from around are going home and talking about how much they grew to love this quaint retreat, located between the Caucusus Mountains and the Black Sea.

The Russians put on a terrific Olympics. They showed a skeptical world that they could hold a well-organized and secure Games - an undertaking that reflected well on the proud Russian people. I say that with some reservation, knowing that a successful Games will bring honor to President Vladimir Putin and his repressive government.

The Olympic development damaged the environment here. When the protest group Pussy Riot held an impromptu performance in the city, Cossack police showed up and whipped one of the women with a riding crop.

But I feel the same way I did after the Chinese ran a near-flawless Olympics in Beijing. In the end, you have to believe holding the Games and uniting people from around the world will help a flawed country find its way to a more just and democratic society.

I couldn't endure this if I didn't believe that was possible. Russians were conflicted about hosting the Olympics, which were the most expensive in history. But the Russians I met here felt a surge of patriotic pride about the Olympics. It was the same way in Beijing and London. They wanted the world to think well of them.

The Olympics give us a string of memories to take with us.

A stirring Opening Ceremony; the jubilant reaction of an athlete after winning a medal, a skater giving away his spot on the team to another competitor; the wives of hockey players adopting stray dogs.

Many of my fondest memories of Olympics involve women. Maybe it's because the Games are a rare chance for them to compete on the world stage as equals, to share the televised glory and show little girls what's possible if you only have the chance.

One of my favorite moments was the reaction of the Swiss women's hockey team after winning a bronze medal, their first ever in the sport. They acted like little girls, sliding across the ice on their stomachs in celebration.

Erin Hamlin, of tiny Remsen, N.Y., also won a bronze. It was the first singles luge medal in U.S. history. It was a great moment for Hamlin, and for the people who supported her in her little hometown.

I also felt happy for a man named Sandy Caligiore, who handles PR for the U.S luge federation. Caligiore is as dutiful a press officer as you'll find. I get more press releases from him than anyone else in Olympic sports. For the first time, he got to moderate a news conference for an American luge Olympic medalist!

Listen to me, getting emotional about a luge PR guy. That's what the Olympics does to you. You get thrilled by the big moments, the gold-medal games and the Opening ceremonies, but the little things stick with you, too — like the female volunteers with “free hugs” signs on the concourse at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.

I'll miss typing “Bolshoy Ice Dome.” I'll miss a lot of things about Sochi, like the welcoming faces of Sasha and Vlad, who ran our little lounge in Building One of the media village. Sasha is a big hockey fan. He has sticks and jerseys and autographed photos of the great Soviet teams on the walls.

Sasha wanted desperately for the Russians to win gold in hockey. But it wasn't life or death, as people had suggested. On the night they were eliminated, he was his typical jolly self, asking questions about America and showing us the proper way to drink vodka.

When writers checked out of our building, Sasha and Vlad had their pictures taken with them, so they could put their photos on the wall for posterity. It must be sad for the Sochi people to see the Games end. The Olympics are a whirlwind, an adrenalin rush for all involved. When it's over, there's an emptiness. It's the same for the media. For three weeks, you're in this mad, exhilarating cycle of watching and writing and winding down. At the end, it's like getting off an amusement park ride.

I often feel I haven't paused enough to appreciate the natural wonders around me at an Olympics. My wife, Melinda, went with me to Beijing and London. She couldn't come to Russia, but told me to make sure I got to the Black Sea. Whenever we visit a new land, it's her custom to swim in its great body of water.

Naturally, I had forgotten. The closest I got to a body of water was the empty pool in Stalin's summer home. So early Monday afternoon, I walked the half-mile down Nadezhd Boulevard to the beach.

I crossed the promenade, where dozens of people were walking, and headed down to the beach. Gazing to my left, I could see the snow-capped Caucusus Mountains. There to my right was the Black Sea. I smiled and thought to myself, what took me so long to get here?

There were a few fishermen down near the water, casting long poles into the sea. There was a solitary boat on horizon. I stumbled on the rocks as I made my way to the water. There was a dip at the end, where the surf splashed against the shore.

I took off my shoe and sock and put my foot in the Black Sea, to keep my promise to Melinda. It was time to come home to Buffalo.