By Eric Gissendanner
Sochi, Russia — Eric Gissendanner is covering the Winter Paralympics from Sochi, Russia, for the Wheelchair Sports Federation. He is also sending journal entries of his experiences exclusively for use in the Press-Republican.
March 16, 2014
SOCHI: Sunday evening marked the closing of the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games. The eight-day Sochi Games culminated with a two-hour celebration at the Fisht Olympic Stadium.
Paralympians, coaches, fans, media and Russian political officials, including President Vladimir Putin, filled the stands. The ceremony itself consisted of a parade of national flags, a light show, speeches by Paralympic representatives and the passing of the Paralympic flag to the PyeongChang mayor for the 2018 Games. Lastly, the night concluded with the extinguishment of the Paralympic torch.
As the flame went out, the realization of the week’s end hit me. Though not an athlete here, I kept my own busy daily schedule. From dawn’s early light to the moon hanging overhead at midnight, the hectic but fulfilling duties as a reporter made the days blend together. As often as I asked about the local time, I also frequently inquired as to the actual day. More often than not, I judged the week’s progression by where competitions stood (semifinals, finals). Once sled hockey reached the knockout stage, I assumed we must on Friday.
The realization of time passage also prompted me to reflect on the Games and what they meant to me as a person, not just a reporter. I entered Russia and was immediately greeted by a daunting flight of stairs in the Moscow train station. “This is going to be a long week,” I said to myself. However, the accessibility improved once I arrived in Sochi. City representatives boasted about making the area a barrier-free zone. A tall task for any city, especially in Russia. They succeeded.
Transportation, walkways, building entrances and restrooms were all accessible. The accessibility reached far beyond the city, as well. Earlier in the week, I trekked up to the cross-country skiing course for a full day of races. Transitions into and out of the gondolas was smooth, something I was unaccustomed to at previous ski trails back home.
My final reflection piece regards the volunteer staff. For two weeks, the volunteers worked tirelessly to make the Paralympic experience enjoyable and accommodating. I befriended two volunteers who were from a small mountain town in central Russia. “Very cold back home,” one of them said.
In their early 20s, neither of the guys had seen a wheelchair or an amputee prior to arriving at the Paralympics. They asked questions about disabilities and accessibility and I was more than happy to answer. Though here as a part of a job, I have also treated the trip as an education moment for anyone curious. When people see something new, they want to know more.
Along with the newspaper clippings, a handful of souvenirs, photos and memories, I leave Russia with a strong feeling of hope toward the country. I had to break my own mental barrier of doubting Russia’s ability to properly accommodate the disabled. Sochi is just a speck on the Russian map, but the city serves as a sample size for what can be.
Eric Gissendanner is a graduate of SUNY Plattsburgh. He interned in the Sports Department of the Press-Republican and also writes for us on a freelance basis. Follow him on Twitter: @Gisser26