Global Learning—Global Adventure

Alumna Brittany James (2013 Russian) and LAS undergraduate Cai O’Connell (Russian and political science) did not spend winter break catching up on their favorite television shows. They began 2014 with an unforgettable cultural experience working at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia—James as a volunteer with the International Olympic Committee and O’Connell as an intern with NBC.

Presenters at Sochi Olympics program

Left to right: Colleen McQuillen, Brittany James, Cai O’Connell, Jeff Gore.

On March 19, James and O’Connell—along with Colleen McQuillen, associate professor of Russian in the Department of Slavic and Baltic Languages and Literatures—presented a program for the UIC Global Learning Community, describing their adventures.

“Sports, Sexuality, and International Politics” was introduced by GLC Coordinator Jeff Gore, who contextualized their experience. He explained that, as GLC students had learned in the spring term seminar, the three controversial topics around the Winter Olympics were: the security concerns due to Sochi being near a politically disputed region, the negative environmental impact of the Olympic Village construction, and the 2013 enactment of Russia’s laws forbidding “homosexual propaganda.”

Map of the Caucasus region

Map of the Caucasus Region.

McQuillen, who served as moderator for the discussion, first described the geo-political history and current situation in the Caucasus Mountain region, which lies between the Black Sea to the west, the Caspian Sea to the east, and Turkey to the south. 

James and O’Connell began by explaining how they landed such amazing opportunities. To no one’s surprise, individual initiative turned out to be key.

James, who spent more than six weeks in Sochi working the Olympics and the Paralympics, began her process at the beginning of 2012 while still an LAS student. “As a student of Russian I thought the upcoming Sochi games might present a real opportunity, so I did my research and made inquiries with the committee,” she said. “I learned that they would be using international volunteers. The hoops I had to jump through included three Skype interviews—conveniently scheduled for noon Sochi time which is about three a.m. here—and several online training sessions.”

Arial map of Olympic area

Map of the Olympic area.

During her Olympic tour of duty, James was stationed at the biathlon site in the mountain cluster where she served as a guide and screened spectators and their property at the security checkpoints. “In addition,” she noted, “during opening and closing ceremonies I was on a team that was in charge of corralling the athletes and organizing them by country for the parade of athletes!”

O’Connell, a transfer student from Cornell College, explained that a professor there had informed her that NBC was looking for student interns. “She told two students and I was the one who applied,” she said. “It was a three- or four-month process of applications and two rounds of interviews.” O’Connell was placed with the hospitality guide program, hosting the marketing executives that NBC brings in for the games. She also served as a stand-in translator during her 12- to 18-hour daily shifts.

The women agreed that media reports on the extreme levels of security were not exaggerations.

Presenters talk about the Olympics

Left to right: O’Connell and James discuss security issues.

“My parents talked about the ‘ring of steel’ before I left,” said O’Connell, whose movements were defined by identity cards and accreditation for various sites and venues. “The Olympic Freeway in and out of the park and into each venue was bordered on each side by iron fences with barbed wire. There was limited access and everyone was searched at every entry checkpoint. It was a process each time to get all of our guests inside.” Once inside the park, she had a bit more freedom and the ability to wander during her breaks. This provided O’Connell with a good opportunity to practice her language skills with some of the more than 1,000,000 Russian-speaking attendees at the games.

As a representative of the official Olympic Committee, James said that she did not have very many restrictions and actually was able to go into the town of Sochi on her one day off, but that was not an easy accomplishment. “On my way I encountered seven or eight checkpoints and at each one I was patted down completely; every single spot on your body is touched,” she said. “You make a lot of friends.” James described the security measures for attendees traveling between the park and the mountain venues, and noted that if you were to violate the security perimeters, “you will be shot. They make no exceptions.”

Other than the much-publicized protest by the activist performance-art group Pussy Riot, who were beaten by paramilitary Cossack security guards, there were no apparent protests at the games, where behavior and conversations were tightly monitored, creating caution when developing relationships.

The O'Connell family

Cai O’Connell and her parents, Tam and Mike O’Connell, at the GLC program.

“I was with a great group of interns and before the games began we did joke about protests and security, but we never joked too far,” said O’Connell. “Once the games began we noticed the men with briefcases. The rooms were bugged and I am sure that the guide lounge in the hotel was bugged. Also, I was not allowed to post anything on social media while I was at the games.”

“I gauged my friendships with other volunteers based on how open they were with me,” said James. “With some it was very basic: ‘How was your day? I enjoyed watching curling today.’ With some others, we discussed what was going on in Ukraine and we were open about everything, including my friend Nikita, who came out as gay. The really open people were few and far between, however, maybe three folks total.

“Anytime we were in uniform, or traveling to or from venues and residences, we were not allowed to take photos,” James continued. “So, all of my photos were taken with my phone. I did not see any actual protests, but there was an environmental protest that was attempted. The individuals were removed before it happened. When people get removed by security, you don’t ask questions.”

Brittany James and reporter

James discusses LGBTQ issues in Sochi with a reporter from Windy City Times.

Speaking of uniforms, James noted the rainbow-hued fashion statements chosen by the Olympic Committee and addressed the speculation that the choice had something to do with either a pro- or anti-homosexual stance. “As far as I know, there is no truth to this,” she said. “But being so ‘rainbow-esque,’ the uniforms do seem very pro-LGBTQ. As an ally, I was very proud to wear these colors.”

Control of communications with the outside world helped create what Gore characterized as a “media bubble.”

Students look at Olympic swag

GLC students admire memorabilia from the Sochi games.

“Both my CNN and BBC apps ‘conveniently’ stopped working and I was not able to access the Chicago Tribune. So NBC and Russian media were my news sources,” noted James. “Before I left the States, I set up a blog so that I could communicate with family and friends. Probably about three posts in—I think it was my second day in Sochi—I was called into the Olympic Affairs office and the vice president sat me down and said ‘you will not write anything else, you will take your blog down now. Here is my computer. You will log in and you will be done with it.’” James made the prudent choice and complied.

“Especially working for NBC, when I was in the park at the NBC center, I was watching NBC news or NBC coverage of the games,” said O’Connell. “At the hotel, it was NBC and if it wasn’t, it was the Russian channel. I did not hear anything political until I got home. I saw Putin who came to our NBC hospitality center. He was all smiles, no discussion of politics. The atmosphere inside the park felt like an amusement park. I was definitely sheltered and I didn’t try to look up any other news source. I didn’t really want to know anything until I got home.” 

“Putin was walking around a lot thanking volunteers,” added James. “It was really cool to be able to almost brush shoulders with him, but everything was very artificial and politics were not on the table, not to be discussed at any time. He did not have an entourage, just walked around freely. That did make me feel personally safer—to see that the president of the country, who is hated by many, is walking around without too many visible guards.”

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Brittany James and Cai O'Connell

Brittany James and Cai O’Connell.

James and O’Connell, who both began their journey to Russian language and culture studies as high school students under the tutelage of Paavo Husen at the Illinois Math and Science Academy, hope to use their skills in careers with a global focus.

“Eventually I would like to work with the United Nations. I’ve got a couple more languages to get under my belt,” said James. “Right now I’m looking into international business consulting. I’d like to work with a firm that has a Russian company as a major client. And recently, a possible spot with the Olympic organizing committee has popped up.”

“I am a student worker in one of the business departments and folks are always telling me to learn accounting or finance, but I’m looking toward a different kind of future,” said O’Connell. “I’d like to work in the Foreign Service, perhaps in an embassy. I could also work with an IGO [inter-governmental organization] or an NGO [non-governmental organization] in Russia, or even be a resident director for an international college program. The possibilities are really huge, but right now I need to finish my degree.”

Photos by Matthew Kaplan