The Olympic Village: Fostering A Culture of Compassionate Politics

The Olympic Village: Fostering A Culture of Compassionate Politics

Like 2 billion people around the world, I too look forward to the Olympics. I watch the opening ceremony eager for stories and symbols that bring the host country’s culture to life. This is a time to bring our best athletes together for honorable competition; the focus is on our youth and our future on earth. We try to leave politics and our differences that seem like insurmountable obstacles to compassionate collaboration outside the Olympic Village. Can you discern cultural symbols and their meaning that each country brings into our unconscious awareness?

I have a passion for culture. I am an American; however, like so many of the athletes I grew up in another country. Prior to returning to the US in the mid-1980s, I lived in and visited over 100 countries. Watching the opening ceremony is thrilling as I recall visiting and living in so many of the countries that proudly enter our Global Olympic Village. I am especially intrigued with seeing the cultural symbols of a new and free Russia.

In 1981, we visited Russia. Still behind the iron curtain, the only way to visit was to join a guided tour. It was June and Russia was the final stop of our six-week tour through Denmark and the Baltic countries of Sweden, Norway, and Finland before returning home. The weather was long sunny days in the 80’s until we arrived in the Baltic city of Leningrad, Russia; the name was changed back to Saint Petersburg in 1991. Our five days in Russia were drizzly, dark and chilly 60’s. We sensed the dramatic contrast between the free countries and Russia immediately.

Our hotel was a massive building converted into a hotel to accommodate the limited number of tourists allowed visas every year. A man and his small group of three greeted us with a small glass of vodka. After a few words of a welcome, a stern looking woman escorted us up a grand staircase to our rooms on the second floor. Unlike the small hotels in Europe or the fancier big hotels that catered to tourists throughout the world, this building felt like an office building with rooms in a convent. Our room was devoid of any decoration or luxury; the bathroom was down the hall. The formality of the greeting and the starkness of the room sent an unspoken message “wait in your room until we call you for dinner.”

Driving through the streets of Leningrad (St. Petersburg), we were struck by the massive, baroque and neoclassical buildings firmly anchored on long blocks of cement. Our guide told us that in 1762 the commission ruled that no structure in the city be higher than the Winter Palace and they prohibited spacing between the buildings. There was little to distinguish one building from the next except for equally huge statues on bridges, buildings and roundabouts.

There were no visible department stores with windows displaying the latest fashions. There were no neon signs or signs of any kind. No restaurants with patios and diners lined up chatting and laughing and waiting for a table. The few people we saw walking on the streets hunched over as they walked briskly with eyes down to their destination. Unlike the colorful clothing and department store windows of the Scandinavian countries, the Russian people all seemed to wear grey or black. They blended into the massive grey walls of the fortress like buildings faceless and devoid of any visible sign of individuality.

The Tsar Peter the Great founded Leningrad in 1703. It is the second largest city in Russia after Moscow. It continues to be a major cultural center and an important port on the Baltic Sea. We went to Leningrad to transcend the politics of the cold war and iron curtain and appreciate the Russian culture.

We visited the Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, Palace Square, and the Winter Palace to name a few. From the bus, we lost perspective of the massive baroque buildings as one after another passed before us as a grey flash blending into the drizzly grey sky. By contrast, walking through the gates of the Winter Palace was like holding a Faberge egg in your hands.

The beauty of the gardens was such a welcome contrast to the cold stone of the street. In a few short steps, the landscape completely transformed. We were surrounded by nature with green lawns, manicured shrubs, and the brilliant colors of flowers. Walking through the gardens to the front door, we found ourselves surrounded by indescribable opulence. Magnificent paintings and tapestries, gold gilded furniture and ceilings, massively carved furniture and staircases. The gardens were beautiful, serene in their formality, and carefully planning. Once inside, I felt the serenity shattered and instead bombarded visually with object d’art that each on its own was exquisite.

Where were the people? When we travel, the first stop is usually the marketplace. In Cairo, we go to the Khan el-Khalil, in Istanbul the Grand Bazaar, in London Covent Garden, and the flea markets in Paris. The culture of a country and a village is the collective beliefs, attitudes, assumptions, artifacts (traditions and stories), and behaviors of its people. In Russia, we saw the artifacts of massive grey buildings with a few opulent remnants of past regimes scattered about; but the city itself seemed devoid of life. No cheerful cafes, no colorful storefronts advertising fashion for the citizens, no happy children playing in the streets.

We saw only a couple signs of current day life. Riding in the bus one day, I noticed a neat line of approximately 25-35 people on the street. It was the first sign of people gathering. I asked our guide why they were lined up and she replied they were waiting for oranges. Only then did I realize we had not seen grocery stores with colorful produce stacked up in the windows. She explained that the only fruit available was the occasional limited supply of little oranges. Supplies of fresh produce were limited even in June.

The second gathering of people we saw were around tall steel drink stands found on every street. The stands were 7 feet tall and 3-4 feet across with a shelf surrounding the structure. On the shelf were clear drinking glasses; I asked if they were water fountains. Turns out, they were vodka fountains. You put a coin in the machine and out came vodka into the glass. Bottoms up and you replace the glass on the shelf for the next person.

The Olympic Games in Russia is exciting because we can witness their culture and people. The opening ceremony is reminiscent of the massive architecture of St. Petersburg. The massive structure equipped with innovative engineering to transport massive architectural scenes is impressive. However, except for a young girl, the opening scene is also devoid of human life. Instead, we are first reminded of the Great Russian artisans and philosophers. Will we also come to know and love individual athletes and their very human stories that bind us together as one human race? I hope so.

About Cynder Niemela, MA, MBA

Building Big Cultures for Small Companies to Grow Into

Recognized by Fortune Magazine as an expert in assisting global leaders and business owners achieve breakthrough results and profitability, Cynder Niemela collaborates with her clients to develop and leverage the potential of their people, brand, culture, and vision for sustainable results.