Everyone has been looking at Russia with held breath. Would they finish in time? Would protestors make an attack? What about all the history between the the USA and Russia-could it be forgiven?
My announcement for my employment within the broadcast realm of the Olympics was met with a double-sided reaction: fervent excitement checked by anxious anticipation. Those who couldn't remember the Olympics boycott of the summer of 1980 and the tension resulting from the Miracle on Ice game prior to the second Olympic boycott in the summer of 1984 have seen the news reports of the treatment of the protest band known as Pussy Riot. And if neither of those stories has anchored in the modern mind, the caricature of Russian culture has: barking language, thick makeup, rude treatment, and selfish natures. I went to Russian in spite of the world's fears, because I believe in the demonstration of unity and the pursuit of understanding despite off-putting exteriors, because often those perceptions are misread.
Russia was no exception.
As American student intern, I was in the minority. For most of the Olympic games, the host countries students are employed in order to benefit the economy, engage the country with the games, and provide valuable work experience. However, my school had some connection and was able to send around 30 students to work in that environment because it sees the value of such a unique and diverse situation. My entire team was made up of Russian students ranging from ages 18 to 23. At first, we just looked at each other. They were self-conscious of their English and I knew no Russian. In order to do our job effectively, we needed to act as extensions of each other to cover a wide area. We needed to communicate. They graciously struggled to share their thoughts in a language not their own for my sole benefit and inclusion. At first, they kept their speech to a minimum, fearing mistakes. But as I encouraged them that their English was quite good and understandable, they ventured further. Soon, they were joking and testing idioms and asking how to communicate different thoughts and feelings in English. The most comical was then I used some form of interpretive dance to explain the difference between "giving in" and "giving up". It got to the point where my English tapered to theirs so that I spoke in a light Russian-English accent with grammar broken to match how they spoke English to maximize effective communication. We created our own hybrid language.
That being said, there were still holes. I was fortunate to see them every day for almost two weeks and be able to read their patterns of physical expression and tone by familiarity. However, we often worked with broadcasters from countries such as Finland, Japan, Sweden, Germany, Russia, USA, Latvia, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, etc. All of these different nationalities came with their own languages and unique styles of communication. I became very comfortable with not understanding and moving forward in spite of that fact. Furthermore, I loved it.
I loved comparing and sharing culture. I enjoyed being the minority and being able to represent my country through my own actions and not through stereotypes. I found a beautiful relationship with people I'd only just met because we were in a place unlike any other, doing a job we'd never encountered before, and celebrating unity on a world stage together. My Russian crew adopted me as I relied on them to navigate the strange new world of Russia. They made me sit if they thought I'd stood too long. They led me to the dining tent if I got caught up in work and forgot to go to dinner. They constantly checked in with me to see if there was anyway they could help. Their kindness and devotion was overwhelming and not at all what I expected from strangers or Russians. When they discovered my love for chocolate, I was inundated with 5 Snickers bars, 2 Twix, and a Milky Way in one day. I had to start hiding it in my backpack as to not offend them that I couldn't eat it all.
We took care of one another. We knew where the others were at any given time, how they were feeling, what they were struggling with, what they hoped to be, and what insecurities were haunting them. In the short course of two weeks, 137 hours of constant work and learning, we became a family. And that bond created an efficiency and natural progression to our work that would not have been possible had we been unable to release all expectations and accept one another where we were at in order to maximize our strengths and determine where we need to be stronger.
I expected to be thrown into a harsh world where the job is the top priority and feelings are thrown out the window. I expected to be mocked for my ignorance and chastised for my learning curve. I expected to suffer and earn my stripes the hard way. I was surprised.
My two supervisors were tough. They expected us to learn our stuff and carry it out, but they invited questions. By opening up the communication line and space for learning, they created trust. They asked about our lives, made sure we were sleeping enough, etc. They knew that we were dealing with a lot of people who were end-goal oriented, people who would treat us as if we were not humans but objects to be used on the way to victory. But those people weren't worth going home and crying over.
I watched closely my higher-ups' dealings with challenging broadcasters and tense situations. I watched their dealings with my fellow students. I watched their personal investment into our workplace. I watched everything. From it I gleaned a deeper understanding of leadership and the communication, patience, and perspective it demands. I began to look for opportunities to exercise those skills in my own smaller responsibilities. I developed closer relationships with the broadcasters themselves and earned a level of trust and grace as a result. I found my bosses treating me with more potential instead of an extra set of hands and feet. Furthermore, I found a deeper attachment and pride to my work that enabled me to work 12-14 hour shifts and barely feel them. I loved learning and my experience with the Olympics facilitated that pursuit in every aspect of every day.
Coming home from such a whirlwind experience is always a bit of a rocky landing. Something has just become a part of you and then it must be left behind. You always come home a bit of a stranger. Your friends and family don't always notice the rift of unspoken, unshared moments and feelings, but you do. They're something to be treasured and shouldered. Something to be poured back into the ground to fertilize the next growing opportunity for learning. I'm still reconciling exactly how my time at the Olympics in Sochi has changed me and will change my future. I'm sure some of the ways will activate without my knowledge. I'm glad because that means they've become a part of my very self. Whether the wisdom and habits I picked up were professional or personal or both, I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity of a lifetime.
Sochi 2014 marks my first Olympics. I pray it is the first of many.