By Gennady Fyodorov
SOCHI, Russia, Dec 11 (Reuters) – After getting their first taste of the Olympic figure skating arena in Sochi, American ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White cannot wait to return for the main event in 2014.
The 2011 world champions said they have only positive memories from their trip to the Russian Black Sea resort, situated at the foot of the majestic Caucasus mountains, after winning the Grand Prix Final at the 12,000-seat Iceberg Palace.
“Looking out of my room I have the mountains on the left and the ocean on my right,” White told reporters during the test event for the 2014 Winter Games, which concluded here on Sunday.
“It just gives you a sense of grandeur and you want to take that feeling to the ice.”
The arena, which will stage the figure skating and short track events in February 2014, was the first to be completed at Sochi’s Olympic Park.
“It’s a beautiful arena and the atmosphere here is just fantastic,” said Davis. “We’ve been several times in Moscow but this is our first visit to Sochi. Everything feels great.”
The Americans beat Olympic champions and long-time training partners Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada in the short and the free dance to establish themselves as early favorites for the gold when the elite skaters take to the ice again at the same arena in less than 14 months from now.
The Canadians were also impressed with the facilities.
“The arena looks great, the ice is fantastic,” said Virtue. “And the weather is great too, unlike Moscow or St Petersburg, especially this time of the year.”
Moir added: “For us it’s a great privilege to be here so early. The venue definitely has an Olympic feeling to it. It reminds me a lot of the arena in Vancouver.”
While some were fascinated by the setting of palm trees against the backdrop of snow-covered peaks, two-time world men’s champion Patrick Chan was enjoying a morning walk by the sea.
“It has become almost a daily ritual for me. I come early before practice just to get some fresh air,” the Canadian figure skater said.
“At this time the place is virtually deserted. It’s so quiet there you could almost here your heartbeat.”
Problems remain, however, mainly in getting around the venues, with the city and the surrounding area still resembling a huge construction site.
Traffic on Sochi’s limited motorways is bad at the best of times but it comes to a virtual standstill when Russian President Vladimir Putin, a frequent visitor to the resort, is in town.
Putin acknowledged the problem when he met the International Olympic Committee members during his visit to the Iceberg arena on Saturday.
“It’s true the number of vehicles on our roads is increasing each year because more families can afford to buy more than one car,” Putin said.
“We don’t want to have less cars, we want to have better motorways. We’re working on this problem, and I think, we will solve it in time for the Olympics or even before that.”
Traffic jams and huge delays were blamed for thousands of empty seats during the first two days of the competition despite the assurances from the Olympic hosts that the arena was sold out a long time ago.
President of the International Skating Union (ISU) Ottavio Cinquanta was concerned with the lack of spectators.
“The first question I put to the president of the Sochi 2014 organizing committee (Dmitry Chernyshenko) when I arrived here was about the spectators,” the Italian told reporters.
“Are we having a full arena? And I was told the arena is sold out. Obviously, this is a problem but that’s why we have these test events to find out what we need to do beforehand. I’m sure all the venues will be full for the Olympic Games.”
Despite some shortcomings, Davis and White remained upbeat.
“We’re seasoned competitors and we’ve been around many places, so if we’re stuck in traffic or the food is not that great – these things don’t bother us,” White told Reuters.
“It doesn’t take our focus away from our main goal, which is to skate well. The rest is academic.”