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Travel

Sochi Was a Wonderland of Excess Years Before the Olympics

Sochi is now infamous for the myriad of snafus and PR disasters that have permeated the Winter Olympics. Back in 2007, the year the Games were awarded to Russia, it wasn't much better. It was still totally corrupt and totally insane.
February 18, 2014, 7:45pm

Seven years ago, I was sent to Sochi to do the dumbest thing one can possibly be sent 7,000 miles to do. I was paid actual money to fly to Sochi so I could produce an international beauty pageant for married women. Naturally, the trip was full of wacky mishaps and a cavalcade of screw-ups by the Russian government. We’ve all read about the Olympian who was forced to hulk-smash his way through a bathroom door, the Olympic rings snafu during the opening ceremony, and the countless other problems plaguing the 2014 Winter Games.

I’ve already written about how the Russians totally fucked up the act of receiving the Olympic bid in the first place by giving away our hotel rooms in Sochi to the IOC and sending us on a surprise trip to Chechnya. Now I’m going to go into more detail about my time in Sochi, and how I was not surprised one bit by the myriad of fuck-ups and PR disasters that permeated these Winter Games. Since this happened seven years ago (the year the Olympics were awarded to Sochi), and I was drunk for roughly 99 percent of the time I was there, I’ll be sharing the few moments I clearly remember.

Dr. Vodka

They really don’t fuck around with vodka in Russia. It’s everywhere, all the time, and it’s incredibly disrespectful to refuse a drink (at least that’s what I was told by my translators/myself to justify how much goddamned vodka I consumed). As a 20-year-old, I was familiar with vodka but hadn’t yet submerged myself in the bitter cynicism it requires to casually drink straight vodka throughout the entire day. I was still accustomed to taking shots during lulls between beer-pong games at shitty house parties in North Hollywood, or cutting my vodka with sugary carbonated beverages. Having a bottle thrust in your face at 7 AM, warm no less, was a new and exciting chapter in my liver-destroying lifestyle.

One of these days that began with vodka ended with blood—and also vodka. The whole town was wrapped up in Olympic fever, or at least that’s what our government chaperones led us to believe. It seemed to me that the whole town was in the throes of a hey-let’s-not-smile-and-we'll-shove-anyone-even-remotely-in-our-way sort of madness. My crew and I were ushered to a supermarket to watch an arm-wrestling match between shoppers that was being put on by a local radio station. I’m not an expert, so I can’t tell you for a fact why the majority of Russians I encountered were so gruff and surly, but if one of my major entertainment options was listening to an arm wrestling match, I’d shove strangers too.

After the sad arm wrestling, we were sent to the base of what are now Sochi’s Olympic ski slopes. Even in February, just like now, there wasn’t much snow, only ice. The ladies competed in a series of inflatable-toboggan races down a small hill while we filmed them. It was pretty boring, except for when a few of the ladies refused to take off their heels and slipped on the ice. Falling down is always funny, and it makes for great television.

After we finished filming the ladies, some crew members and I were given vodka by our Russian cameramen. Perhaps to commemorate the finished shoot? Or maybe because it was vodka. Who cares? We drank. With liquid courage coursing through our veins, we thought it would be a great idea to take a few slides down the hill ourselves. I went, and it was great. We humans love to manipulate gravity for the purposes of fun.

Our lead producer, Eric, who never let his habit of partying like he was still in college get in the way of his work, mounted the toboggan and began to fly down the hill. He hit a bump. He and the inflatable raft were sent flying into the air. He landed in a lump, amid all of our laughter and jeering. We kept laughing, expecting him to pop up and take a bow, only he didn’t get up.

Someone once told me that if you fall hard you shouldn’t get back up, because you might have a neck injury. I still don’t know if that’s true or not, but I didn’t let that stop me from making sure Eric didn’t sit up. One of the Russians ran to grab the medic while I sat with Eric. He was bleeding pretty badly from his head. The red droplets of life fell from his skull and dotted the ice, turning it into a lazy Jackson Pollock.

Like a clichéd scene from a shitty movie, we had the same conversation for the ten minutes it took the medic to arrive. “Where am I?” You’re in Sochi; you fell off your sled and hit your head. “What am I doing here?” We’re shooting a beauty pageant. “Where am I?” You’re in Sochi—and so on. Finally, the medic slowly ambled up to us. He took one look at Eric, made him follow a pen with his eyes, and smiled. He told the translator that Eric would be fine and sat him up.

I asked about his head wound, and the medic told me he would take care of it. He grabbed the half-empty bottle of vodka and unceremoniously baptized my lead producer with fermented potato water, right there on the ice. He then produced a small bottle of blue liquid from his pocket and doused Eric’s head with it, making him resemble Kano from Mortal Kombat.

It sounds ridiculous, and it was fucking shocking to watch how mundane this was for the Russians, but it worked. The blemish vanished from his face within days, leaving no trace of a scar. We still have no idea what the magical blue elixir was, but we learned a new use for vodka that we’ll hopefully never have to implement again.

The Little Apostrophe That Made A Huge Difference

After an IOC-related detour in Chechnya, we made our way to the hotel in Sochi. On our bus, we daydreamed of hot showers and warm beds. As we pulled into the parking lot, one crew member burst into laughter. He pointed to the front of our hotel. We all began cackling. With the same font, same color scheme, same everything, the grand facade of where we’d be staying for the next week called itself the Caesar Palace. Not Caesar_s_ Palace—no, no, that would be copyright infringement. Caesar Palace. This palace didn’t belong to Caesar; it fucking was Caesar.

Every morning, we ate breakfast at a restaurant called Café USA. At first we got our hopes up: Were our days of bland potatoes smothered in dill coming to an end? Alas, no, they just called it Café USA because it had some ceramic cowboys chilling inside. Beets, borscht, and most of all dill. Fucking dill. I don’t ever want to eat anything pickled ever again, unless it’s a goddamned pickle.

Café USA was set up as a normal diner with a dining room in the back that was a little… off. It had weird, smooth chrome poles jutting from the floor to the ceiling at seemingly random places. There was only one booth. Our executive producer, Howard, a cross between Neil Diamond and Robert Evans, commandeered the booth for himself. The rest of us had to eat at strange small tables and chairs situated around the poles. Was this place under construction for the Olympics already? It didn’t make sense. They didn’t look like load-bearing columns; they were chrome. I paid no mind, as you don’t need to be in the lap of luxury to choke down pickled eggs.

The only part of the Caesar Palace that in any way resembled its Las Vegas counterpart was the basement casino. Within a few hours of arriving at the hotel I had already blown through my allotted per diem (which, if I remember correctly, was around $200). I made a promise to myself to not waste any more cash at this probably rigged Russian gambling hall. A few days went by, and I held to that. I am riddled with vices—gambling, drinking, sex, pills, you name it. Getting as drunk as I did and not emptying my bank account at the blackjack tables was a real win for me.

When you film in a heavily corrupt country like Russia, you absolutely must employ a “fixer"—someone who you bribe to make sure that you don’t have to bribe more than you must. Someone to extort the extorters. Ours was a steely, ex-KGB chunk of ice and marble… at least the rumor was he was ex-KGB. I never asked.

Our fixer had two henchmen who looked and acted like they were around my age. The henchmen and I quickly became drinking buddies. I made them laugh, and I liked listening to their stories. They had to have been Russian mafia, and I loved it. I’m a kid from the suburbs, so this was all terribly exciting.

One night, toward the end of the shoot, we were tying one off at the hotel bar. They begged me to come down to the casino with them. I told them about my luck, and they laughed. “We make luck here!” the bigger one guffawed. “No worry, I think your luck turn around tonight.” I took out a hundred bucks and headed down with them. We drank and played blackjack. My $100 lasted much longer this time, long enough, in fact, for me to black out.

I woke up at a small table that looked familiar but felt alien. As my senses realigned, I became aware that I was in the dining room at Café USA. Except it wasn’t morning, and there were no pickled eggs to be found. Within seconds I realized what those chrome poles were for.

At night, Café USA was a no-holds-barred strip club.

Eric, two other producers, and the henchmen were sitting at the table with me. They noticed I had snapped out of my slumber and cheered. One of them got up and grabbed a girl, who led me to the very booth where Howard ate his goddamned eggs every morning. It was the private dance booth.

On the way, one of the henchmen rushed over and thrust a bottle of vodka in my face. I took a swig. Manners, right? I dropped the bottle onto the floor and promptly blacked out again. It marked my first ever strip-club experience. It was also the first and only time I ever fell asleep in the middle of a lap dance. Eric snapped a picture of me passed out under a Russian stripper to commemorate my big night.

I woke up the next morning more hungover than I’d ever been in my life. It might have been my first hangover. Twenty-year-olds don’t get hangovers unless they earn them. I was wearing my pants, one shoe, no socks, and no shirt. Panic struck me as scenes from the previous night’s madness flooded my mind.

I shot up in my bed, feeling around to make sure I didn’t piss on myself or anyone else. Fuck, there’d better not be anyone else in this bed. Luckily, my only companions were two empty bottles of vodka. My dick was dry and no part of me smelled like pussy, stripper's or otherwise. Once again, panic shot through my spine and hit my head like a test-your-strength carnival game.

I remembered going to the ATM at some point, but when? How much fucking money did I take out? I only had around $500 in my account, and I needed that for rent back home. If I gambled away all my money, or even worse, threw it at Russian strippers, I’d be fucked. I gingerly reached into my pocket and rummaged for my wallet. It wasn't even there.

Frantic, I fell out of bed, groping around the dirty hotel carpet. Finally, my hand grasped something leather, only it didn’t feel like my wallet. It was on its head, open but firm. As I grabbed it, I was met with the inescapable urge to vomit. I ran into the bathroom, wallet in hand, and purged a sea of chalky waste into the toilet. I wiped my mouth, turned on the light, and stared at my hand.

Inside my wallet was $4,000.

I didn’t have time to process where this money came from, why I had it, or what I did to earn it. I was a half hour late for breakfast. I gargled some mouthwash as I put on a clean shirt, and then I scampered back down to Café USA. I was met there by my co-producers and the henchmen. They erupted into laughter and applause as I entered the strip club/breakfast nook.

One of the henchmen put his arm around me and whispered into my ear, “See, I tell you your luck turn around.” With that, we all roared with laughter. Across the room, in his private booth, Howard shot us a dirty look while chomping down on a mouthful of pickled egg.

Josh Androsky is a writer/comedian/karaoke enthusiast. See him and other VICE west coast contributors at ENTITLEMENT; Wednesday, March 5 at Los Globos on Sunset Blvd. in Silver Lake. Also, follow him on Twitter @ShutUpAndrosky