Amid the worries over the Sochi Olympics security, Vida Venciene, the head of the Lithuanian Olympic delegation, who arrived in Sochi two weeks prior to the opening ceremony, dismisses the concerns. “When the plane landed and we got off, I was stunned by the balmy, warm weather, in the upper 20s and saw only lush palms trees around, but, frankly, I did not notice any visibly reinforced security,” she confided to The Baltic Times. Venciene, a gold and bronze medalist in the Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics, is one of two Lithuanian winter athletes who have ever won medals in the winter games (the other is biathlete Algimantas Salna, who won a gold medal in the biathlon relay 4x7.5 km at the Sarajevo 1984 Winter Olympic Games, representing the then-USSR team with Russians Dmitry Vasiliev and Yuri Kaskarovu and Belarusian Sergei Bulygin).
What are your first impressions of Sochi besides the stark contrast of the temperature, compared to the chilly January in Lithuania?
I really was astounded and mesmerized by the beauty of the nature and the balmy temperature. But in a stark contrast, there’s a lot of snow in the high-rising mountains and the nearby three camps where all the Olympic delegations will hunker down. Interestingly, the camps are at different altitudes. The athletes’ camp will be at the lowest point.
Don’t you think that the different locations of the camps might be a problem for some?
Well, certainly, that is the question that most want to find an answer to before being accommodated. I personally believe it might be an inconvenience, but let us see… I am really fascinated by the camps and the [closeness] of the major facilities where most of the sports events will take place. Without any exaggeration, most of the Olympians won’t even need to use transportation to get to the sites of their competitions. Many of them will be able simply to walk over to them! In some Olympic Games that I have participated in - as an athlete and, later, as a representative of Lithuania’s Skiing Federation, and recently as an official of Lithuania’s National Olympic Committee - it would take up to an hour to get to the competition sites. That’s not the case in Sochi!
Why did you arrive to Sochi so comparably early, nearly a dozen days prior to the Olympics’ start?
As head of the Lithuanian delegation, I was asked to come over to Sochi earlier in order to have enough time to see and inspect the facilities in which our athletes will be accommodated, train and compete. I’ve already taken part in our delegation’s accreditation procedures as well as in distributing rooms to our Olympians. Sure, I’ll be out there for all our athletes, sharing pieces of advice and encouraging them.
How do the Olympics’ residential quarters look? Did you heed the Olympics officials on anything?
The athlete quarters look really cozy and nice. I don’t have any rebukes for the organizers so far.
Have you been to Sochi before?
Quite interestingly, my career as a biathlete had taken off, namely in Sochi. I remember when I was enrolled still in the former Soviet Union’s National Youth Biathlon team, one of our first training camps took place - guess where? - in Sochi. If I’m not mistaken, it was in the beginning of the 1980s. In fact, it was one of my first-ever trips abroad. Frankly, I had never seen any high-altitude mountains before, so I was amazed by the Caucasus mountains which extend from the vicinities of Sochi. From what I’ve seen already now, everything has changed beyond recognition! But perhaps it shouldn’t [surprise] anybody as just over the last three or four years Russia has pumped billions [according to some Russian sources, $51 billion] into improvement of the infrastructure and the building of entire new city blocks.
Are there really no visible reinforcements in security in the resort and the facilities?
It is yet too early to draw conclusions on the security of the Sochi Olympic Games, but I’d like, before their start, to underscore one thing: the issue of security is key not only in these Games, but it has been that way in all Olympiads. With the dozens of Olympic Games under my belt – in which I either participated [Venciene had competed in three winter Olympics], or was present as a representative, I know what I’m saying. Frankly, I really cannot tell so far that there’s a visibly large presence of security in the Olympic camps. But elsewhere, perhaps, there are more security personnel; simply everyone pays more attention to them amid the international brouhaha of the issue.
Did you have a chance to taste the food the Olympians will be served?
Indeed, I did! And it was very good. There’re plenty of international kitchens to choose from - Russian, European, Asian, even McDonalds! But this is quite funny, as its name is written only in Russian!
There are a lot of politics about the about-to-start Olympics regarding many issues. What is your take on that? Have our Olympians been warned not to make any political statements?
I really believe that has nothing to do with the true spirit of an Olympic Games. A real athlete who works hard to qualify for an Olympics, I believe, will never get involved in anything that violates the Olympics Charter. When all our delegation will arrive in Sochi, I think we’ll hold talks with all the athletes and perhaps will talk to each one of them about the matter you mentioned. But the bottom line is, there cannot be room in sports for politics.
How has the Lithuanian winter athletes’ preparation for the Olympics gone? What can we expect from them?
Our spirits are brilliant, as perhaps we are all convinced that all the homework has been done pretty well. In fact, the last week before the departure to Sochi had been extremely hard, as last-minute stitches had to be done. The Olympians have been training hard, without exaggeration, until the very last day before the Sochi-bound flight. For example, the skiers, Ingrida Ardisauskaite and Vytautas Strolia will board a Sochi-bound plane effectively just having finished their competition in the world youth championship that took place during January 31-February 2. I really hope that our biathletes Diana Rasimoviciute and Tomas Kaukenas, coached by Latvian Ilmars Brici, will achieve the peak of their physical form right during the Olympic Games.
Who can stand out in the flamboyant crowd of Olympians?
Perhaps the most optimistic results we expect are from the ice dancers Deividas Stagniunas аnd Isabella Tobias, who have revealed their potential quite well during the last European Championship in Budapest where the skating duet placed 9th. Quite an achievement, taking into account they left behind some very strong duos from France and Germany. We also hope that the short track speed skater Agne Sereikaite, who also has a decent record in the last years’ competitions, will be able to throw the gauntlet before the army of other competitors. As a matter of fact, Agne will have the most strenuous schedule of the competitions. She will start competing in a speed-race on February 10 and will end her performance with the third speed-race on February 23. In general, the Lithuanian National Olympic Committee and me personally remain quite satisfied with our athlete’s pre-Olympic results. No doubt, they are resolved to strive for their best personal results in Sochi. But, frankly, they, as well as we in the Committee, are aware of their capacities and the fact that coincidences do not happen during an Olympics. But to answer your question, it would be great that biathlete Rasimoviciute and speed skater Sereikaite would force their way into the top 10 athlete list. For the ice-skating duo, a spot among the 15 best skating couples is planned, as far as I know.
How big will the Lithuanian Olympians’ delegation in Sochi be?
We have got accreditation for 9 athletes. This makes the Olympian delegation the largest we ever had at an Olympic Games. Besides the afore-mentioned ones, there will be mountain skiers Rokas Zaveckas and Ieva Januskeviciute. In a sign of honor, to some of them before the flight to Sochi, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite will bid farewell and wish them luck.
Do you know how big the Latvian and Estonian Olympic delegations will be?
There will be over 50 Latvian athletes and roughly 30 Estonians in the Olympics.
But not to offend the Lithuanian athletes, some of them are mere statistics in most of winter sport competitions. Did it make sense to seek a record size of the delegation if some of the Olympians, perhaps, will not even complete their race?
Oh, God forbid, what are you talking about?! Just out of respect for our athletes, who will do whatever they can not to disappoint us, don’t put the question that way. It’s impossible to have all our athletes win medals, as there many - and in some competitions, hundreds of participants - so the competition will be utterly huge. I really believe it would be great if our all Olympians achieved their best personal results in Sochi.
What do the athletes need to do to win Olympic medals, like you did in the 1988 Calgary Olympics?
(grins) They need to have the conditions I used to have back then! Just one fact to pay attention: I would spend up to 9-10 months in the then-Soviet Union national winter sports teams’ training camps before an Olympic Games. In addition, to have talent and show devotion, and not go bragging about myself…
Will the Olympians have a large support team?
I believe the group, including some state heads, sports officials, mainly heads of winter sport federations, will comprise no more than 60 people. Besides we have some people in the group whom I call the Olympians’ gear maintenance crew. They will make sure the biathletes’ gear - skis, poles and the guns - are in good condition. Frankly, our team is very young, with perhaps the exception of Diana Rasimoviciute who, at 29, will participate in her 4th Olympic Games. For the rest of the athletes the games will be the first of this kind in their lives, and I really pray that all of them would achieve a result that would hearten and encourage them for future starts. It is really important that all our athletes will feel the true spirit of the Olympics - it is really unique and long-lived. I’ve been reiterating to all of them through the preparation period: achieve what you are able to do and what you strive for yourselves. Then, no one would dare to rebuke you for failure.