She wore a red coat and had long dark hair. She was crouched on the tile stairs in front of our dorm-style lodging. A parade of athletes walked by and most did not look down. She scrubbed tirelessly until the ceramic tiles shone. She worked on each tile, meticulously, dipping a rag into the bucket, scrubbing, dipping, scrubbing.
Thousands, maybe millions of hours are invested in an event like the World University Games. The athlete village alone is filled with hundreds of volunteers, each one making a tiny cog in the machine. No detail is left undone. At each security check point, there are at least eight officers and even more attachés. The attachés are students, each one fluent in at least one other language. They are paired with teams to assist them in every aspect of their daily routine. They help us find ski shops where we can purchase wax remover (something we cannot fly with). They translate simple questions like, “where is the bus stop.” They work in the fitness room and help make reservations for trips into the city.
Invisible. She scrubbed each tile. I wondered whether the water in the bucket was warm.
Today, at the Nordic ski venue I heard an attaché tell the Chinese athletes that she had taken six years of Chinese and still felt far from proficient. She told her story as she guided the athletes to their wax cabinet and changing room. At home, in Colorado and Wyoming, we generally wax outdoors, sometimes in blinding snow storms. Here, at the World University Games, we have two large indoor wax rooms. Each one has two wax benches and shiny tile floors. As we unpacked, I tried to figure the value of the equipment and wax that now consumed the space, $60,000? Maybe closer to $100,000.
Her coat looked thin. I wondered how many times each day she had to scrub.
The athlete village is filled with ice sculptures. Each is intricately carved and at night the lights behind them sparkle making it easy to see the minute cracks. They form tiny mountain tops and trees. Last night I walked with our athlete, Emma, and we thought together about the years of planning that made all of this possible. She said, “I believe they started planning in 2012”.
Each year at the end of the Games, athletes from all countries come together for the closing ceremonies. They trade their coats, hats, race suits. Though I know that it is the very act of benevolence that really never changes a system, I think I will just leave my coat for the girl who scrubs the stairs.
The towels in our room are embroidered with Krasnoyarsk 2019, 29th Winter Universiade. The pillows have the same insignia, as do the comforters. Each lodger receives a gift bag that also bears the Universiade name and in each bag is a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner. We dine in an amphitheater where there is a 1200ft spread of food; each is labeled: Halal, Asian, European and Russian. The dining hall is open from 5am to 1am every day. Six to seven student servers fill our dishes at every station. Lines of coolers are filled with bottled water, Fanta and Coke. These coolers are also in every dorm and on each floor of the venue.
Today, I walked down a quiet hall where a volunteer monitored one of the water coolers. She sat there so quietly that at first I did not see her. I knew I didn’t need to ask to get a water bottle but I did because I hoped it would make her feel seen. Last year in Kazakhstan, there was a volunteer who sat next to the front door of our dorms. Throughout the two-week games, he never went home. He fell asleep in his chair sometimes.
The opening ceremonies are tomorrow night. The athlete parade will precede a show that took two years to prepare. It will showcase the history of Siberia and features Olympic figure skating champions. The event will be televised around the world, including by our own NBC Olympic channel. It seems likely that there will be millions of viewers.