SOCHI, Russia -- Every now and then, the Cold War comes back to life at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games.
Its distant strains are faintly heard, but they are there: in a resurrected and hauntingly familiar national anthem; the roar of a Russian figure skating crowd; a black-and-white photo of a triumphant Soviet Olympic moment hanging on a wall in the massive Main Press Center; and a terrible, five-month-old racist tweet against the American president from one of the legendary former Soviet – not Russian, but Soviet -- athletes chosen for the great honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron.
The Soviet Union is long dead. It has been gone for 22 years. And yet that word – Soviet – bubbles to the surface in conversation now and again here at Russia's first-ever complete Olympic Games, following the massive disappointment of a boycotted Summer Olympics in Moscow in 1980.
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It's a slip of the tongue. Or a reference to an athlete from a former time. It's one of those pictures of a long-ago Soviet men's hockey triumph, or another photo of the moment in Munich in 1972 when the Soviets were given three chances on the clock to beat the Americans in men's basketball, and finally did.
Or, it's the continuation of the USA-Russia men's ice hockey rivalry on Saturday, even though the hopes of the home team are riding on men who mostly earn their livings in North America, which would have been unthinkable in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Sochi Winter Olympics are a week old now. They so far are a successful and safe festival of sports and color and exuberance and joy and snow and ice that could be taking place almost anywhere.
Except we are not almost anywhere.
We are in Vladimir Putin's Russia, guests of a former KGB officer and a nation at loggerheads with President Obama and the USA over, among other very significant issues, Edward Snowden and gay rights.
We are in an old Soviet resort city, remade, at the cost of $51 billion, for a new century, a new era. We are in a hardscrabble nation striving to reintroduce itself to a watching world.
So it should come as no surprise that some last Soviet vestiges are present at these Games, and with them, those lasting memories, especially for the West, especially for Americans, of a bitter time long gone now, but so easily remembered.
There was that tweeted picture of Obama and the First Lady, with a photoshopped banana in the foreground, sent by Irina Rodnina, a Russian parliament member who also happens to be one of the most decorated Soviet sports legends in history, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in pairs figure skating from 1972-80.
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She was one of two former Soviet stars – the other was Vladislav Tretiak, the old Soviet hockey goaltender who was benched during the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" loss to the USA -- to light the caldron at Friday's opening ceremony. She has apologized, kind of, mentioning that her Twitter account was hacked, but there can be no denying the tone that was set from these Games' very first moments:
It was not love at first sight between the Russians and the Americans.
And what U.S. sports fan of a certain age doesn't hear the name "Tretiak" and smile, if not a lot, certainly a little? His spotty play in the first period of that hockey game 34 years ago in Lake Placid made possible the greatest upset in American sports history.
And there he was, back on American television, lighting that caldron?
If that doesn't scream out "Do you believe in miracles," I don't know what does.
It is at the Iceberg Skating Palace, the figure skating venue, where the USA-Russia rivalry is most alive and well, even if it's only in sports these days, and mostly a friendly competition at that. It's figure skating; of course the Cold War comes back to life there, in the sport's arcane and often controversial judging, where 31-year-old Russian legend Evgeni Plushenko was wildly over-marked by a judging panel with its share of Eastern Europeans last weekend in the team event.
And of course it reappears in the raucous roars of the home crowd for their Russian skaters, with polite to almost-nonexistent applause for all the others.
"People can't really prepare you for how that feels having the entire audience chanting 'Russia' as you're warming up," said U.S. Olympic figure skating team bronze medalist Ashley Wagner.
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New Olympic pairs gold medalist Maxim Trankov was a beneficiary of that massive support.
"For us, it was a very special moment," he said Thursday, "because we did it in our country, on our ice, in our beautiful Sochi and in front of this amazing people."
I don't know if you're counting the figure skating medals back at home, but he sure is. For a nation that was shut out of the figure skating Olympic golds in 2010 for the first time in 50 years, that's two skating events down, two gold medals won.
"We're very happy to get a second gold in figure skating," Trankov said. "We only have two (gold) medals, and both of those are from figure skating. Now all the young skaters, the young pairs, must believe in themselves. They must understand their big power in the world, that they're elite citizens in figure skating. We're very happy to give back the gold to Russia."
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It's understandable nationalism and pride. And it all makes sense. For the first time since 1980, the athletes of the world have gathered for an Olympic Games in the old Soviet Union. And, for the first time ever, it's a complete Games, not fractured and less than the whole, as were those Olympics boycotted by the USA and most of its allies in 1980.
That means the United States is competing in an Olympics in the former Soviet Union for the first time ever. Every sporting team needs a rival. Russia's is right here.
Contributing: Nancy Armour
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