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Makey was acting strange. Maybe it was jet lag. Maybe it was the tall manufactured palm tree outside of Olympic Park, after seeing plenty of real palm trees around Sochi. Makey, a stowaway in our carry-on luggage, thought he had a special invitation to the Olympics as he has at all the Maker Faires, but we, his handlers, had to do all the legwork. By the time we got to the gate of the Olympic Park, we thought we had done everything necessary to get in but then we discovered that we needed additional tickets not sold at the entrance.

That morning, we went from the hotel to downtown Sochi, which is north of where the Olympic Park is from where we were staying. Picking up the actual tickets that we had ordered online involved finding a mini-mall, which proved easy, but getting what is known at the Olympics as a “spectator pass” was much more difficult. We went to the Sochi railway station to get the pass as we were told to do. After going through security, we were told to go somewhere else 20 minutes away because the line for the pass was closing because it was too busy. We got bad directions to a mall that “everyone in Sochi knows” but we couldn’t find. The trouble was finding the mall with its Cyrillic name, which Google Maps wouldn’t understand.

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Makey poses for a picture at the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

So, we had already had a long afternoon of walking and standing in lines and waiting for malfunctioning computers to get back online while young volunteers smiled at us, not being able to do anything to help. It seemed like going to Olympic Park was a good idea, and the train trip south from Sochi included a wondrous sunset on the Black Sea. Yet when we arrived at the Olympic Park and walked to the entrance where the beefed-up security was, we learned that spectators also needed tickets just to walk around the park. Now one might wish that ticket booths were nearby and that it was fairly simple task to buy a ticket. Not at all, which I heard someone explain is what Russians say in response to thank You, their equivalent of “you’re welcome.”

We walked back to the train station, then went down stairs and outside past the bus terminal to a small round building where several hundred people were waiting and waited a half-hour to get to the front. Now you’d think that the Olympics might have more than one line for tickets into the Olympic Park, and that the end of that line would not be a plastic portable table with a young person managing a cash lockbox. It explained the wait.

One of Makey’s handlers remarked that the Olympic Games could learn a lot from a county fair and its many tiny ticket booths. At the front, we learned that the young man could only take rubles–cash only, and the Russian kind only. We thought we could use Visa at the Olympic Games, as the advertising said. Not at all. We had to go back to the train station, having to go through security to pass through the bus terminal and re-enter the train station to find an ATM, which to our surprise actually worked. We held a crisp note for 1,000 rubles, about $28 US dollars. We walked back to the ticket center and waited another half-hour in line. During that time, they moved the portable table inside and it seemed to be moving at the pace of an award-winning DMV line in America. Just before we got to the front of the line again, the portable table was moved out front again, manned by a senior Russian official who spoke rough English and seemed to be barking orders at a couple of young volunteers. All this for a ticket that cost about 200 Rubles or about $5.

A slideshow of Make’s trip to the Olympics:

With our ticket in hand, we walked back through the train station, passing the bus terminal for the third time and then walked past a well-lit fountain to the secured entrance to the Olympic Park. Walking in, we had to have our Spectator Pass scanned and then our ticket scanned. Then we went through TSA-level security, except it we went through a metal detector, then a magnetometer, followed by a Russian patdown. A patdown from a Russian may not be significantly different than a TSA-trainee’s patdown. However, if you’ve ever had a Russian massage, you know that Russian men have firm hands and they lean into you if you don’t understand a Russian phrase as simple as “turn around.” Finally, we were through all that and were inside the Olympic Park about 90 minutes after we arrived.

We read in a guide that smiling at strangers as you pass them in the street is a sure sign that you’re a tourist in Russia, the kind of advice that is perhaps too easy to accept as truth, but Makey seemed determined to not change his expression, even though he was excited as anyone upon entering into Olympic Park. Counter to the advice, the Russians volunteers in blue suits seemed very happy to see everyone and most of them were smiling.

At night, the Olympic Park in Sochi has something that feels like Disneyland without the same sense of order–there are lots of lights and noise in a very large space without quite enough people. There is what appears to be a castle commanding an important position or not, but it’s not on the map. It could be an unfinished hotel that is bathed in light, like the mammoth site next to the hotel where we are staying. There’s also a roller coaster nearby that doesn’t appear to be active. It, too, might be unfinished or perhaps it does not run in the winter. So the Olympic Park has these elements of a theme park, but adds an odd collection of corporate sponsors, which makes the park look like a city that had poor if any urban planning. Then there are these magnificent, well-lit modern buildings, all new and majestic, that the unmistakeable pride of the Russian builders of these Olympic games. These modern buildings are losing their solidity, even while soaring skyward. They become mesh screens that show us everything that’s going on inside and their outsides can come alive like a huge TV screens wrapping around curved surfaces. Screens are screens.

Once inside, we went to the Samsung exhibit, a colorfully arranged set of shipping containers. Inside, it was Samsung’s version of the Apple Store but a bit more mundane like a Best Buy. The store was cool on the outside but not so hot on the inside–tables of well-secured devices in every size and shape, all of which all do the same set of amazing things.

Makey didn’t want to show his face in the Samsung booth. As we moved to the back, we understood why. In a corner, which seemed to attract a modest crowd, there was the “3D Printing Experience.” The pitch was that you could create an object on a Samsung Galaxy and then print it in 3D on printers supplied by 3D Systems. Makey wanted nothing to do with it. We don’t know what was bothering him, whether he has a brand preference or not, or whether it was just a “Meet Your Maker” moment. It was also clear that 3D printing was being featured as just a shiny new thing. We think we need to bring Makey back there.

Volkswagen was next to Samsung and they had a large set of TVs arranged almost like a mashup of the old game show Hollywood Squares and an 90’s nightclub. Music blared and dancers came out writhing and leaping in air, individually and in pairs, with some suggestion that this was an interpretative dance for the sports of the Olympic Games.

A most unusual building was next. It wasn’t the usual consumer company. It was Rosneft, a uniquely Russian petroleum company. One of several large video message walls displayed the words “Rosneft: Fuel for Russia.” Inside there was a scale model of a drilling platform and a map of Russia where Rosneft was finding oil and gas. There were fake, stuffed polar bears with a sign saying that Rosneft sponsors Polar Bear exhibits in Russian zoos.

It was here that Makey wanted his first picture taken. As you can see, Makey struck a pose that is reminiscent of track-star John Carlos in Mexico, who defiantly raised his hand in a fist on the medal stand in protest. We weren’t sure what Makey was protesting, but there are certainly a number of concerns about this Olympic Games in Russia from the public stance of officials on gays to the killing of stray dogs and the huge sums of money the state has spent on the games, much of it coming from its relationship with companies like Rosneft. This Russia emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union with a new economy based on oil and gas extraction.

Maybe Makey just had to get that out of his system. He enjoyed playing on the drilling rig model. That seemed to change his mood. A much smaller exhibit area was organized by Microsoft. When we walked in, a nice young Microserf from Moscow approached us and wanted to demo Windows 8.1 on a tablet. I explained that Makey doesn’t do touchscreens, and she let him stand on the tablet as a platform. She was bright and very engaging, and wanted to practice her very good English on us. It was difficult to pry Makey away from her.

Next he wanted to see the Olympic flame and have his picture taken there. Here is looked like Makey was just raising his arm as if he was holding the Olympic torch. We had seen the opening ceremony on TV last week. We recalled seeing the two famous Russian athletes leave the stadium with the torch and go out into the park and light the Olympic Flame. Now the stadium where that took place was closed, only to be used again for the closing ceremony. The flame is very high up in the air, but one can hear the gas burning from below. Makey wasn’t going to get too close.

Makey and his handlers stopped for food in a large red-and-white Coca Cola-branded tent. We had Russian ravioli and a beer. (Makey is still a minor.) Makey asked for a picture with him atop one of the big red Coca Cola signs.There was an open concert in the Olympic Park. The loud music was in Russian and the crowd was so familiar with the songs that they sang along and danced in large circles. We realized that most of the people in the crowd as well as the people in line us earlier were Russian. Apart from a few Canadians, who were boldly wearing their colors, there was no obvious collection of athletes or supporters from other countries. It could be that the instructions to American athletes not to wear gear that identifies them as such in public has influenced the tourists as well. This was a homeland crowd, all proud Russians, draped in their red, white and blue flag, with someone wearing the famous red flag of the Soviet Union. It is their Olympics and it is a huge boost for them. They wear red-and-white caps and jackets emblazoned with R.U. For a night, we were all Russians. Makey raised his arm, waving at the crowds.

Seeing R.U. reminded us of R.U.R, a play written by Karel Čapek in which the term “robot” was first used and popularized the idea of robots. R.U.R stood for Rossum’s Universal Robots. We tried making the connection for Makey. Wikipedia explained the etymological origins of “robot”:

“The word robot comes from the word robota, meaning literally “serf labor“, and, figuratively, “drudgery” or “hard work” in modern Czech (in Slovak,RussianPolish, archaic Czech and other Slavic languages the cognate word means simply “work”).”

Makey now thinks he’d like to get a hat with R.U. on it or least get his picture taken with one.

On this trip, Makey is making the effort to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. He has friends who are dyslexsic and this alphabet makes him feel like he suffers from it, with numerals acting like letters, and letters facing backward instead of forward. It looks like everything is written in ALL-CAPS. Makey has developed a fondness for the letter Ж, or Zhe. It is the first letter in the word translated as “Hot” in the official Olympic slogan “Hot. Cool. Yours.” Some robot friends of Makey are all arms and legs, like the letter Ж .

The many young, enthusiastic volunteers dressed in Olympic colors greet everyone leaving the park at the end of the night. Makey got a big hug from one of them on the way out of Olympic Park, which kept him warm in the cool night air. We said “thank you” and she replied in Russian, “not at all.”

On the way home, Makey said he now wants to see snow. It is the Winter Olympics after all.

Dale Dougherty

I’m founder of MAKE magazine and creator of Maker Faire. I am CEO of Maker Media, the company that produces MAKE, Maker Faire and Maker Shed. I am Chairman of the Maker Education Initiative (www.makered.org).


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