The Outside Blog

Adventure : Athletes

It's Miller Time

Bode Miller is at a beach volleyball game, and he's pissed. As in: he has thrown his Sölden cap to the floor, his head is in his hands, and he's visibly shaking. It's August 2013, and Bode is in Salt Lake City's Liberty Park watching his wife, 26-year-old Morgan Beck Miller, lose in a tournament put on by the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP). A couple of friends sitting near him in the VIP section look worried. It doesn't help that the families of the winning players—who just beat Morgan and her partner, Kaitlin Nielsen, two games to none—are only a few feet away, whooping and clinking beer cans. Bode probably wants to hit something. Instead, he has to sit there, itchy in this moment of athletic impotence.

At 36, Bode is on the old side for an athlete, but when he's around any kind of competition the adrenaline still flows. It's a blood rush that has allowed him to ski on pure guts, ignoring personal safety and technical grace for balls-to-the-wall plummets down the toughest racecourses in Europe, Japan, and North America. He's the same unleashed wild man who, over a 17-year span, became the most decorated male skier in U.S. history and one of the most electrifying athletes to watch anytime, anywhere. Bode has won five Olympic medals, 33 individual World Cup races, six event titles, and two overall World Cup crowns. (He has so many trophies and cups that he sometimes uses one to marinate chicken wings.) Going into the 2013–14 ski season, he was recovering from microfracture surgery to his left knee that kept him off the slopes last year, but he was thinking big: his goal was to win the overall World Cup title and, in February, collect more gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Even now, Bode brings it to the mountain like a Red Bull–chugging 16-year-old. It's as if nothing's changed.

Except everything has.

In Salt Lake City, Bode quietly picks up his hat. He knows that if Morgan sees his bare head, she'll figure out that he lost his temper and he'll hear about it later. He doesn't mind throttling things down on her behalf, though, since he's quite clearly a man in love, for better and for worse.


Bode said goodbye to his playboy lifestyle when he married Morgan in October 2012, and his first year with the 26-year-old athlete and model has been a mix of pure joy and terrible pain for both of them. An incident in mid-December was typical: Bode, who has taken up golf, hooked a tee shot directly into Morgan's left eye—an injury that required more than 50 stitches and resulted in what may be permanent vision impairment. That day, Morgan established herself as one of the all-time gamers by tweeting a picture of her swollen, bloodied mug and the message "I'm not feeling so hot. Line drive to the face today with a golf ball from my darling husband. I still love." Bode kept his message short and contrite: "Hit wife w golfball. #worstfeelingever."

Bode's lament came in the wake of a pretty bad November. That month, Bode and Morgan began a bitter custody battle for a baby boy Bode had conceived with an ex-girlfriend before he met Morgan—a now resolved dispute that brought him plenty of negative media attention ("Bode Miller's Baby Mama Sara McKenna Claims: 'He Never Offered to Use a Condom' "). By that time, Bode already had custody of a five-year-old girl he'd conceived with a different ex-girlfriend. Later, in January 2013, Morgan miscarried what would have been their first child. A few months after that, Bode's brother, Chelone "Chilly" Miller, died of a seizure at the age of 29.

It was the kind of year that might incline even Romeo and Juliet to call the whole thing off, but the couple remain undaunted. Ebullient, even. Publicly, you can figure that out from the kissy-face emoticons they post on Twitter. Get a glimpse of their personal life and you see it in their glass-half-full handling of marriage's many challenges. "Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of people would have walked away by now," Morgan says, "but if you look at the bigger picture, our lives are amazing."

BODE WAS KNOCKED sideways the first time he saw a picture of Morgan in the offices of the New York sports agent they share. A snap-shot of a blond, six-foot-two California beauty will do that to a man.

He wrangled her number in May 2012 and swung by a volleyball tournament in Florida where she was playing a couple of weeks later. At the end of her match—which she won, a breakthrough moment for her fledgling AVP career—Bode watched her cry. In that outpouring of raw emotion, he says, he saw every-thing he wanted in a woman.

"She was trying to be macho and hide it, but I saw it," he tells me, his stubble now speckled with gray. "When everything is stripped away—it happens in sports or when someone is stressed—you see who a person really is, even someone like Morgan, who has as thick a wall as anyone I've ever met."

"He said that's when he knew I was his soul mate," Morgan says, feigning gushiness and leaning into him in a booth at Bambara, a Salt Lake City bistro where we're having dinner.

"No, I didn't know that until June," says Bode.

"We met on May 26," Morgan points out.

The lovebirds flew in from very different habitats. Bode, famously, had a Huck Finn upbringing in the New Hampshire woods, with hippie parents who let their four children self-police, get dirty, get lost. At 11, he was five-two and a scrappy 115 pounds; he fought to keep up with older, bigger skiers as they sped down the mountain.

Morgan grew up in Coto de Caza, a 5,000-acre gated community in Southern California, in a family that Bode calls "the white Cosbys." Her father, Ed Beck, was a pioneer in software financing, which made him very, very rich. They were definitely on the grid: Morgan was given a Mercedes as her first car and got grounded if she didn't blow-dry her hair. By age 11, she was already more than six feet tall. She ended up playing volleyball at UC Berkeley and turned pro in beach volleyball in 2011.

Since Bode has achieved so much in sports, he can shrug off a bad race, a bad Olympics, and even a bad breakup with the U.S. Ski Team. (Which he quit between 2007 and 2009, in part for not supporting him during controversies like his flop at the 2006 Olympics.) Morgan is a midlevel pro whose dream is simply to compete in the Olympics someday, and she has trouble shaking off a bad practice. During one early match at the Salt Lake City Open, where she and Nielsen ulti-mately placed ninth, Morgan slammed her fists into the sand after hitting a perfectly set-up ball into the net. It took some tough love from Bode to keep the negative moment from bleeding into the next game.

"Morgan's emotions are her biggest strength," says Bode. "But she's also a dominant and very powerful woman—most guys aren't ready for the brunt of that." Bode revels in it. She expresses the highs and lows for him, the constant, analytical half; he reels her back to rational when she needs it.

People think that Bode lacks perspective, but that's not really true, as he'll show you during the wandering analytical conversations he's known for. At one point, Bode compares the range of emotions he and Morgan experience to liquid moving through a drinking straw. He holds out his hands and mimes a straw with a huge opening, the diameter of a basketball. That's Morgan's "volume." He shrinks it to the size of a marble: that's his. "Our personalities look black-and-white," he says. "But we require each other to get the full spectrum out of life. Neither of us would be the same otherwise."

Morgan shoots me a glance. "Not one conversation remains on the surface," she says. "Every day is a therapy session."

"She knows she can talk about stuff with me and I won't just address it," Bode says. "If there are 30 layers there, we're going to start from the bottom."

LAST APRIL 7 in New Hampshire, Bode's mother, Jo Miller, entered a room making the most pained sounds that Bode had ever heard from a human. He and Morgan were playing with his daughter, Dacey, and at first he almost laughed, because he thought it was a put-on. Then Jo told Bode that Chilly was gone. He'd died in Mammoth Lakes, California, inside his van, of a seizure stemming from a motorcycle crash he'd suffered years earlier. Chilly was a professional snowboarder and was hoping to join Bode at Sochi in February. For the next 90 minutes, Bode couldn't stop sobbing and sweating.

Neither Bode nor Morgan will expand much on that day, but they both say the full impact of the loss didn't hit until Chilly's absence at August's annual, family-heavy BodeBash in his hometown of Franconia, New Hampshire—a fundraiser for Bode's adaptive- and youth-sports nonprofit, the Turtle Ridge Foundation. Bode has since said that he feels he has his brother's energy with him and that Chilly's spirit will be there in Sochi.

Leading up to that possible final Olympic Games, Bode's goal was to win all four alpine races—downhill, slalom, giant slalom, and super-G—at every World Cup event, which meant regularly defeating the reigning giant-slalom world champion, Ted Ligety, and the super-G and downhill world champion, Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal. Bode is working with Chris Krause, a technician for retired Swiss World Cup star Didier Cuche, and his hope is to win the overall World Cup, set a points-total record, and come home with a few heavy necklaces from Russia.

"It's a lot," Bode admits. "I have way more understanding of what it takes to train and win in four events than anyone else in the world. Whether my body puts up with it…"

"It's ambitious," says Forest Carey, head multicoach for the U.S. Ski Team and the man overseeing both Bode's and Ligety's bids for the overall World Cup. "Is it possible? Yes. Is Bode capable of doing it? Yes, he's done it before. Is it likely this year? Ummm."

At the opening World Cup race in Sölden, Austria, in October, Ligety took the GS title. Bode finished 19th. "Wasn't my best skiing," he tweeted later. "But happy to be back." It's a respectable start, though, and Carey anticipated that Bode would take a few races to really get under way. He thinks there's no reason that Bode can't be competitive all season.

Bode has dropped 20 pounds and says he feels lighter and springier than ever. Technically, this is also the first time he's had a fully functional body since 2001, thanks to the surgery in spring 2012. Last August, at his first training camp in New Zealand, Bode came back skiing fast, but he left early because of swelling in his left knee. If it turns out that his body can't handle the four events, Bode says the first to go will be giant slalom and, after that, slalom. "I'm old enough and mature enough to know that you get old, and if your knee fucking hurts, it's time to let go."

Bode could be hard to beat in the downhill and super-G. Older skiers excel at those two races. The fast-twitch muscles required for the slalom and giant slalom, however, favor youth. "Taking on the slalom and giant slalom is like being a running back," Carey says. "You have to be explosive on your feet. Past 33 years old, not a lot of guys get better. And with Bode coming back from a microfracture surgery—there's a lot of chattering, jarring, and slamming in those courses. I want to say that Ligety can beat him handily in slalom, but…"

He pauses. "I've learned to never bet against what Bode's capable of doing."

{%{"image":"","caption":"Morgan Beck Miller's grisly golfball injury in December 2012."}%}

FROM THE STANDS in Salt Lake City, in the stifling, godless heat of a Utah August, Bode watches Morgan's matches like a stage mother: worrying aloud, pointing out mistakes, texting her tactical ideas mid-match, and talking volleyball semantics with other AVP players and their coaches between events.

"Bode comes to every single practice," says Morgan. "I'm not kidding. One day, four of us were working on pulling drills when Bode brought practice to a halt. He wanted to show us—and this includes a fifteen-year volleyball veteran—how to do it better."

Bode has a knack for picking up the invisible pulses of a game, gaining an intuitive playbook of moves and responses through observation. (He's a first-rate amateur tennis player and has become a good golfer.) He also has a knack for being a no-filter know-it-all, which doesn't always fly with others. "Being married to Bode requires a lot of patience," Morgan says. "I swear to God, he has said to me, 'If people listened whenever I told them what to do, they'd be so much happier.'

"There are days I'd like him to play in traffic," she admits. "But the worst part? Ninety percent of the time he's correct. Do you know how that feels? It's obnoxious."

The way she smiles when she talks about Bode isn't the passive acceptance of a newlywed, but genuine amusement about the man she married. So she gives him a pass on the small things. She lets him pick her entrée at dinners and her dress for the ESPYs, and after some argument, she gave him her blessing to build a regulation-size sand volleyball court in their yard in Coto de Caza, where the pair ended up after they got married and Bode sold his yacht for (literally) a more stable home.

Because of the volleyball court, Morgan barely has time to finish her morning coffee with her parents—who are living with the couple for now and watching their pets and plants when Bode and Morgan travel—before Bode turns to her and says, "Let's go, babe." Her daily practices have become decidedly more intense, but as Morgan points out, when Bode is training hard, he often keeps going until he pukes.

"I'm super stubborn and patient," Bode says during dinner in Salt Lake City. "I know sports. I know nothing happens overnight. If I make a suggestion, I trust that if it doesn't happen immediately, it might sink in later. That's how I got Morgan to marry me. I always have two or three strategies going at once.
I have the immediate attack that I focus on, and that has three or four ancillary carryovers that help the other three or four attacks—"

"You're getting some insight here," says Morgan. "Relentless."

Bode bought Morgan an engagement ring in Chicago during the Jose Cuervo Pro Beach Volleyball series in July 2012, part of a "two-prong attack." First, he found a diamond guy and had the ring sized. When he and Morgan walked into the jewelry store, Bode had the seller bring out the cushion-cut diamond ring. She turned white.

"She said, 'If you ask me, I'll say no,' " says Bode. "And I said, 'I know. I haven't asked you yet.' "

"It was a month and a half into our relationship," Morgan says.

"I took the ring home, and we didn't talk about it," says Bode. "We had it for so long that I was carrying it around in my backpack when we were in London for the Olympics. She got so flustered, because she was convinced I was going to lose it, and was like, 'No! You give it to goddamn me.' So here she was, carrying around her own ring.

"I knew"—Bode switches to a more scheming voice here—"that the strategy was working to perfection."

At this point, all of Morgan's friends knew about the ring, and the thought of it drove her crazy. Finally, one night, she lost it.

"I told him, 'If you're not going to ask me to marry you, return the ring and buy it when you have the balls to propose,' " says Morgan, throwing her hands up.

"And I said, 'Will you marry me?' " Bode says, beaming. "She said, 'No… Yes… Ugh.' Check aaaaand mate!"

Morgan interrupts to say it didn't happen in quite this order. But that doesn't matter: Bode has his story, and he'll probably stick to it.

{%{"image":"","caption":"The couple’s backyard volleyball court.  Photo: Amanda Friedman"}%}

MORGAN WENT IN with her eyes open when she married Bode. There was the good: his daughter, Dacey, would become a part of her life. Bode's been friendly with her mother, Chanel Johnson (who has since married), ever since she was born, and he helped name the little girl. Then there was the bad: the risk of more ex-girlfriends and the negative publicity that seems to follow Bode around like a zombie entourage.

Three weeks into his relationship with Morgan, Bode found out he was going to be a dad for the second time. Morgan says she placed an awkward phone call to the mother, Sara McKenna, a former Marine and firefighter now living in New York City, who Bode had met through a high-end dating service, went out with a couple of times, and last saw a few days before he met his future wife. Morgan told McKenna she knew about the baby and reassured her that Bode would help take care of her. This was three weeks into Bode and Morgan's relationship.

"I could write a book about this year," says Morgan, swiping through her phone's pictures to find a few of Bode and McKenna's cherubic son, Samuel Bode Miller-McKenna, a tiny doppelgänger of the skier, right down to the piercing blue eyes.

When Bode and Morgan got engaged, the tone of McKenna's tweets shifted from "Congrats to @MillerBode and I, 8 more months and we will have a baby him or baby me! 99% sure it's a boy already! :)" (in June 2012) to "Cheers to all the guys that man up and care about their babies. You guys deserve a gold medal, unlike some" (in September).

Later that fall, Bode filed a paternity suit for joint custody. (He did the same with Chanel Johnson for Dacey.) In response, McKenna, who could not be reached for comment, hired a publicist and released everything to the media on January 19, 2013. Three hours later, Morgan had her miscarriage. She was eleven weeks and two days in. She blogged about going through the devastation; among the heartfelt replies were a few comments saying she deserved it.

McKenna provided reporters with text messages allegedly showing that Bode had been willing to walk away from the baby and give her a lump sum of child support. She claims he wanted her to get an abortion, that she almost miscarried from stress, and that Morgan harassed her online, using the Twitter handle @anaappert. McKenna, who filed for a restraining order against Morgan last spring, says she was responsible for threatening tweets like: "There will be a warrant for your arrest for kidnapping the moment you go into labor so throw boulders bitch."

Morgan flatly denies these charges. "What's really hard is that it was all false," she says. "She sold pictures of the baby to the media and was posting all these things on Facebook. We've had to deal with it and not fight back."

That changed on November 15. In May, a judge had ordered McKenna to return to California for the custody proceedings—where she was living when Bode first filed the suit—from New York City, where she was enrolled at Columbia University on the GI Bill. Once the battle was back in California, Bode and Morgan won primary custody of the six-month-old boy and renamed him Nathaniel. He lived with the couple for three months, until November 14, when a New York County judge reversed the ruling to bring the battle back east.

The next day, Morgan posted a diatribe on her blog about McKenna and McKenna's alleged desire for "revenge, attention and money." Two days later, Morgan deleted it. As one commenter pointed out, "Why would you post this in the middle of a custody battle?" Bode's lawyers probably agreed, since there may be a nasty fight ahead. Morgan declined to talk to me about her on-again, off-again post.

FOR NOW, MORGAN and Bode are settling in with their new family, content to wait on a child of their own. At dinner, Bode points out that his mother was a midwife and that he was in attendance for a few births, including his sister's and brother's. He notes that he studied his mother's midwifery books during his years of homeschooling. This leads to the obvious question: Will Bode deliver Morgan's first child?

"No," says Morgan.

"I think so," says Bode.

Morgan looks at him, horrified. "I will be in a hospital. He doesn't want me to be in a hospital."

"I was there when my daughter was born," Bode says. "I'm very comfortable around that stuff. It's so raw. There's no ego. You're right in the moment. Things get so calm. It's awesome." Morgan is clearly appalled. The subject changes to Bode's retirement.

"I would have been happy retiring in 2009, but I realized I had to leave this sport in a better condition than when I came in," Bode says.

He goes on to say that, these days, he wishes he'd been more diplomatic during his career, but he still believes in the importance of a freewheeling style in the sport. When Didier Cuche and Aksel Svindal—with their technical, meticulous form—started winning, Bode took it personally.

"It felt like I had allowed the World Cup to prove my style was a fluke," says Bode, who came back for the 2010 Olympics to give people what he calls a "whoa" feeling again. And he did, winning gold in the super-combined, silver in the super-G, and bronze in the downhill. When he got to the starting gates, people told him they could feel the energy shift.

"My attitude was, 'I'm going to go like you've never fucking seen before, and there will be nothing left,' " he says. "But I'm not alone in that anymore—other skiers have picked up the torch. Ted Ligety, for one." He also praises Austrian slalom specialist Marcel Hirscher, who skis "like a little jackrabbit."

"Unfortunately, your legacy tends to be your whole legacy," Bode concludes. "You don't get to pick the time later in life when you under-stood things better. It includes the times when you were a dick, too."

Should Bode retire, his future will include horse racing—he co-owns two thoroughbreds with trainer Bob Baffert—his foundation, and golf, but all that will take a backseat to parenting. "I'm ready to retire," says Bode. "I'm so much happier watching Morgan play sports than doing them myself. I really want her to do well." He believes Morgan can be one of the top four players in the world, whether that means her first Olympics is in Rio in 2016 or Tokyo in 2020. Either way, she knows her coach will be at her side.

"I can't wait for the day when I win a gold medal at the Olympics and you're like, 'Thank you, thank you,' " Morgan says, imitating his future bow.

"Yep! They'll be putting the medal around your neck, and my head will pop up—" Bode leans closer to Morgan and raises his head up between her collarbones to scoop the medal. They laugh. But don't be too surprised if it happens.

Rachel Sturtz writes for Esquire, Runner's World, and other publications. She lives in Denver.

Read More

The Making of “The Armstrong Lie”

As Daniel Coyle, co-author of The Secret Race, has pointed out, Lance Armstrong’s story is not new. It’s an archetypal tragedy fueled by greed and hubris.

The Armstrong Lie, the new documentary by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side) isn’t entirely new either. The narrator (Gibney himself), originally enlisted to document Armstrong’s comeback in 2009, wound up making a film about the man’s dramatic rise and fall. Gibney came to understand that Armstrong's invitation into his inner circle was a calculated move. Who better to bolster the power of his story, to help weave a more elaborate cloak over the truth, than a director with a reputation for exposing abuses of power?

The film's two producers, Frank Marshall and Matt Tolmach, already called Armstrong a friend. But just as the team finished its original comeback documentary, The Road Back, a string of admissions followed by a 202-page USADA report hit the news. The filmmakers shelved their first movie. They needed just one thing to happen in order to make a new film: Armstrong to play along.

You shelved your first movie, The Road Back, after Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, and others made allegations against Lance. But then Armstrong contacted you. Talk about that moment.
FRANK MARSHALL: He asked Matt and I to come down to Austin during the Livestrong Fundraiser, Ride for the Roses, last October.

MATT TOLMACH: It was surreal. The USADA report had come out and people were bailing from the Lance train. Frank and I had long ago drunken the Kool Aid, so we were somewhere in the middle. I was a little skeptical; Frank was wanting very much to believe that there was no substance to this.

And we were in Austin. Lance said, “Come into my office, I want to talk about doping, and I want to come forward, and I want to maybe say something in the movie.” And he came clean.

We were gobsmacked. This came from the mouth of a guy who had been so vehemently denying it for so long. It was just an insane moment in life, to be in the same room with this guy as he comes clean. It was a lot to process. As filmmakers, we were incredibly excited because it meant a whole new life and angle for our movie. But as people who knew him for a long time? It was a stunning and shocking moment.

Did you ask many questions?
MARSHALL: I mostly listened because it was such a stunning revelation. We asked him if he would be prepared to talk to Alex again because there was no movie unless we had a new interview with him. He agreed, and then Matt and I got on a plane the next morning so we could meet with Alex. Then we met with Sony Classics. A new movie evolved.

Did you set up any guiding principles?
At this point, what you have to understand is that the first film was primarily a comeback film. The Road Back contained within it the idea of the road into the past, a kind of reckoning with past accusations or allegations of doping. Slowly, those failed accusations and allegations became very real.

It became a different kind of investigation, not into whether it happened, but how it happened, and how the lie obscured the reality of what had happened. And so a different kind of move had to be made.

We had on film the anatomy of a lie. It was like that moment in Blow Up when David Hemmings suddenly realizes he has something in the lens of his camera that he didn’t understand. And so now we’re going back and doing a different kind of an investigation, moving back and forth in time. Although I was kind of reluctant to put myself in the movie, we all agreed to make my own story part of the story—to really convey the emotional depth of what it's like to believe and then to have a lie revealed.

Alex, what was the biggest challenge in terms of putting yourself in the story?
GIBNEY: Well, I think the biggest challenge was being honest. I had become a fan. I had to really reckon with my own role in the story, as having been, in effect, part of the cover up.

Why do you think Armstrong gave you full access to document the comeback in the first place?
GIBNEY: I think it was hubris. I think it was a sense that he had this act wired, that he had done it before, and he was going to do it again. Everybody could watch, and they could look under the bed, and wherever they wanted, and they could talk to whomever they wanted, but he had this down. It didn’t matter if they gave us access, because we wouldn’t be able to see anything.

In the film I ask him: “Weren’t you concerned that people were going to raise questions about doping when you came back in 2009?” And he said without missing a beat, “Of course.” Not, “Yes.” So, there was an expectation that he could give us lots of access and it wouldn’t make any difference.

TOLMACH: Lance did let Alex do this. There’s part of me thinks it was 99 percent hubris. At the same time, there’s something kind of nuts about doing that with someone like Alex who emerges with the truth. Maybe he knew subconsciously that couldn’t hold on to this thing anymore, I don’t know. I’m always amazed that he did let Alex in.

Were there moments when you felt that Armstrong was trying to control your story?
GIBNEY: He is a storyteller, at least when it comes to his own story and his own myth. It’s as if he wrote the script for himself in the morning and then lived it in the afternoon.

There was one day where he lost very badly to rival Alberto Contador. We were hanging out in his hotel room filming him. And he looked me in the eye and he said, “I’m sorry. I fucked up your documentary.” I think there was an aspect of bluster to it, but I think there was something very true about it. It was as if he had written the screenplay, but it hadn’t come out the way he wanted. He had a narrative for himself that he believed in, and a lot of others believed in.

That was the thing, he had created a story that was so big, and so fantastical, and he even called it a miracle at one point. On the 2005 podium, he said, “I’m sorry for those of you who don’t believe in miracles.” When you have a guy who’s scripting miracles, he’s going to try pretty hard to control that story.

TOLMACH: There’s an amazing moment in the movie that also speaks to how strange it all was. The moment I showed up at the Tour that year, he'd had a bad day. I went up to him and said, “Hey dude, how’s it going?” He gave me a hug, and he whispered to me, “What’s going to happen with the documentary if I don’t win?” He was so acutely aware that we were telling a story about him. And so he was trying to be the storyteller and the main character. 

GIBNEY: This guy had come to realize that the enormity of his story was so powerful, so financially and emotionally beneficial—both to him and to many others. I think he felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to keep delivering that lie, over and over again. 

Where did his ability to craft a story come from?
I think that’s what’s the movie about. He was this angry, fatherless kid who came out on a tear, and then suffered an enormous blow [cancer] and came back to the sport in spectacular fashion. And there’s a whole sequence about the power of that revelation to him and everybody else. That’s where it all began. And I think the movie kind of examines why he was so ripe for playing the lead in this story about the creation of a myth.

GIBNEY: Just like he learned to do everything on the bike, he learned how to be a great storyteller because he understood that he was at the center of an extraordinarily powerful story. He learned on the job. I don’t think it was innate. I think as Matt says, it was nature, not nurture.

What’s the ultimate motivation driving that?
GIBNEY: I think it just evolved. I think at some point, he understood that the story was enormously profitable, and not just for him. It was profitable for the sponsors, and the sport. And frankly, it was also very powerful to millions of cancer survivors all over the world. We say in the film, it’s not a story about doping, it’s a story about power. 

Did power motivate him more than money?
GIBNEY: I’m not sure. I think he sees the world in very binary terms. You either win—and if you win, you win all out. Or you lose. That’s it. Win or lose. End of story.

Why were there no interviews with his mom, or his ex-wife, or anyone from his family?
GIBNEY: I tried to keep it to the team, to keep it professional. It really became an investigation about his professional life, and not his personal life.

There's a moment in the film when Armstrong, Bruyneel, and Stapleton are talking about the possibility of Armstrong not being invited to compete in the 2009 Tour. What did you think about that moment after you learned that Lance had been doping?
GIBNEY: That’s just an unbelievable scene in retrospect, but at the time it was just part of the constant bravado and clamor about doping accusations. You know: How dare they? Which was a constant refrain. But they all knew he was doping. Johann doesn’t say, “He didn’t dope.” He says, “He wasn’t busted. He wasn’t busted.”

GIBNEY: And so it has a whole different subtext.

Can you summarize your relationship to Armstrong? How much did you correspond before the making of this movie?
MARSHALL: I met Lance before the Sydney Olympics in 2000 through his agent Bill Stapleton; we were both on the Olympic committee. Bill came to me when Lance wrote his book, after the Olympics, and said, “We think this could be a movie." 

TOLMACH: And we spent a lot of time with him. We went to every Tour. We rode with him. Lance and I would go out and just hammer the hills, and Frank would be in the car behind us taking pictures. We spent a lot of time with him developing a narrative, so we knew him very well.

Matt and Frank,  how important was it to have Gibney as the director? 
MARSHALL: We selected him to do the first version of this film because as a producer, I like to go with the best. He’s a fantastic documentarian, he’s won an Academy Award, he’s done great documentaries, and he's also a big sports fan. But when we met with him, he admitted he didn’t know anything about cycling, which was actually great because we wanted the film to reach a broader audience.

He was also really fascinated by Lance’s will. Really, he was interested in why Lance was making a comeback. I was interested in that too, and so it made sense to have him as our guy. 

TOLMACH: I think the most important thing to understand is that Frank and I were insiders in the world of Lance. Even in the previous version of the movie we really wanted to get under the skin of this guy and try to understand him. We needed someone who approached his subjects more forensically and analytically then we would. Alex is the best in the world in that.

Alex’s first cut of the movie was brilliant, and was quite biting in its own way. But once everything became clear a year ago, the journalist in him just lit up. He can find sources that no one else can find and weave a narrative that breaks through a very complicated story. It all ended up being really perfect casting.

Was there ever a moment when you butted heads with Alex?
TOLMACH: Absolutely. There was one evening when we were in the cutting room in Columbia Pictures and we were, in the most productive way, having a very heated debate about some of the stuff Alex was putting in about doping.

MARSHALL: It was about balance.

TOLMACH: At that point we tended to be the counterbalance to anything that had to do with doping. Long before all of this stuff came out, Alex was hot on the trail on all kinds of noise and allegations that were already out there. He had already interviewed Frankie Andreu and Michele Ferrari and people who nobody was talking to back then. 

MARSHALL: We thought, in some instances, the allegations were not relevant to the story we were telling—the incredible story that happened on the mountain in the battle between Contador and Lance. We wanted to err on the side of the exciting race, and also have sort of the smoke that was swirling around. Again, it was about balance.

What was the lesson in making this movie?
TOLMACH: I found the process to be so eye opening, and oddly, the idea that the truth is a ever-moving target is actually a gift when you’re making a documentary. You’re given a story that is ever changing. When you make a documentary, you’re very nimble, you’re not locked into a strip, you can roll with events as they happen. It certainly forced me to take a broader view of things, things that you believe in and things that you are not necessarily willing to question because it might be uncomfortable to go against the grain. I think Alex showed us the importance of always looking for the whole truth, and keeping our eyes wide open at all times and not getting lost in the narrative. It's been an amazing ride.

MARSHALL: I agree. Unfortunately, the desire to win at all costs has been woven into our culture. I look at things a little more carefully. I’m glad we hung in there to discover the real truth. I mean, Lance was a hero to me. I’m a bit more cynical now. I was probably naïve, probably too idealistic. But winning at all costs is not a good ethic to have; it causes a lot of damage.

Read More

The Sochi Olympics Are a Five-Ring Mess

In 2010, the people of Russia were asked to design an Olympic mascot, and the people responded—creating 24,000 cartoon bears, tigers, saints, snowflakes, witches, and wolves in just three months, a forest of candidates, a seeming triumph of democracy. The upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics, in the southerly city of Sochi, had until then been Vladimir Putin’s pet project. The new Russia was to be showcased at the president’s favorite Russian ski area and coastal resort, with facilities in the Caucasus Mountains and along the Black Sea built from scratch by his most favored oligarchs.

“Sochi is a unique place,” Putin had told the International Olympic Committee in 2007, when his personal touch helped Russia beat out Austria and South Korea for the chance to host the Games. “On the seashore, you can enjoy a fine spring day—but up in the mountains, it’s winter.” Putin had flown to the IOC meeting in Guatemala just to deliver his country’s pitch. He’d spoken English, one of the few times he’s done so publicly. Now, to ignite similar Olympic passions in Russia, his government held a mascot contest. Common citizens would submit designs and vote for a winner. Whoever came up with the champ would receive two tickets to the Games.

Forty minutes after it was introduced online, a psychedelic blue frog with a ski pole in its mouth rose to the top of the ranks, and it stayed there until the contest was done. There are a few reasons why. One is that democracy, even carefully managed democracy, is messy. Another, as I witnessed over and over when I visited Sochi last February, is that Putin’s Olympics are Putin’s Russia in microcosm. The frog wore a tsarist crown on its head— a reference to “nationhood and spirituality,” explained its creator, the Moscow cartoonist Egor Zhgun, with faux solemnity. In its eyes, in place of pupils, were rotating Olympic rings: black, yellow, blue, red, and green. The frog was covered in fur—these being the Winter Olympics, after all—and it had no hands, which left many people wondering about the intended metaphor. (Zhgun says he simply neglected to draw them.) Its name was Zoich, a clever use of letters and numerals. To a Russian eye, the 2 in 2014 looks like a Z. The 4 looks like the letter Ч, which is pronounced ch. With a squint, or a bit too much vodka, “2014” reads “Zoich.”

In the YouTube video introducing Zoich’s candidacy, the frog is seen sipping a martini in a disco with the Cookie Monster, paratrooping into a city while attached to a string of balloons, kicking a rival candidate (a freshwater dolphin on skis) into a pit, and having a drink with one of the other subversive mascots, Pila, or “Saw”—a reference to the financial corruption, known as “sawing the budget,” that everyone expected to plague Olympic construction. The video was viewed 700,000 times. Love for Zoich spread to national newspapers and television. While no one knew quite what to make of the frog, its popularity felt dangerous. It was hard to see Zoich as anything but a protest candidate.

I met Zhgun in a Moscow café during a layover on my way to Sochi last winter, almost exactly a year before the Games would begin. Twenty-seven years old, tall and lanky, he was a soccer and hockey fan with no particular interest in the Olympics. “When I was drawing Zoich,” he told me, “I didn’t realize he would become a symbol of the opposition, but I was OK with that.” People started making bootleg Zoich T-shirts and ashtrays. Zhgun began dreaming up games to put on Zoich’s website. “One was like Jenga,” he said. “I wanted a game with the Olympic stadium made out of blocks of money. How much can you steal before it falls down?”

At the time of the contest, Putin, who had taken the lesser position of prime minister after reaching his presidential term limit, was quietly orchestrating a return to the top. The opposition—mostly urbanites like Zhgun— was beginning to mobilize. In a little over a year, there would be 100,000-person protests and counterprotests in Moscow, prompting bloody clashes with police. When Putin successfully reclaimed the presidency in 2012, with 64 percent of the vote, election observers noted that, despite allegations of ballot “irregularities,” fraud wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the government controlled who got to run in the first place. The real opposition wasn’t even on the ballot.

{%{"quote":"“Stalin wouldn’t have let this event happen,” said our guide at the Soviet dictator's old dacha near Sochi, “because it’s just ruining the city.”"}%}And so it went with Zoich. Just before Christmas 2010, a government-appointed jury of experts and celebrities narrowed the 24,000 mascot candidates to 11. The skiing dolphin made the short list. So did two bears, polar and brown. So did a snowboarding snow leopard that Zhgun derided as very badly drawn. Zoich was missing from the list. And after the frog was disqualified, the story got stranger. Zhgun admitted that he had entered the contest only because Russia’s Olympic Committee, hoping to drum up excitement, had paid him. “You can draw anything you want,” they said, “but you can’t tell anyone.” Even the protest candidate was just a piece of guerrilla marketing gone awry, crushed as soon as it began causing trouble.

The final round, a televised poll aired on Russia’s Channel One, attracted more than a million viewers—the highest number for a single broadcast since the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest. The polar bear had been far ahead with the public, but on the morning of the vote, Putin, who was visiting with schoolchildren in Sochi, was asked which mascot was his favorite. It happens that there’s a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) leopard-breeding program based inside a national park outside the city. There’s a leopard pen in the park that was built with Olympic money. Putin—who has been photographed flying heroically with storks and shooting tigers with tranquilizer darts—has twice shown up to personally welcome transplanted leopards, still groggy after flights bringing them from Turkmenistan and Iran. By now the leopard mascot had been professionally retouched and given a new name: Barsik. According to his official bio, Barsik is the epitome of an intrepid but solitary leader. He is “a rescuer and mountain-climber who lives in the uppermost branches of a huge tree, on the highest peak of the snowy mountains in the Caucasus. He is always prepared to help those in need.”

“The leopard is a strong, powerful, fast, and beautiful animal,” Putin told the kids. “Leopard species had been destroyed around here, but now they are being regenerated. If the Olympic project, at least in some way, should help the local environment, then it would be symbolic.” After voting ended that night, three official mascots were unveiled: a bunny, a polar bear, and the not-too-surprising winner, Barsik the snowboarding snow leopard.

{"image":"","caption":"Froome as he nears the finish line."}%}

{%{"image":"","caption":"Left: A bridge under construction in Sochi designed to ease access to the 2014 Games' alpine events. Right: Security guards at the snowboarding and freestyle venue last winter."}%}

THE WWF’S LEOPARD enclosure was hidden in the forest to our left as photographer Simon Roberts and I drove up into the Caucasus from Sochi International Airport, but we didn’t have time to stop. A year before the Olympics, Sochi’s newly built mountain facilities were hosting test events: skeleton and luge, skiercross and boardercross, halfpipe skiing and snowboarding. Teams from all over the world were converging on Russia’s only subtropical city, a resort town close to Turkey once known mostly for the sanatoriums where Soviet workers came to recharge. Opening ceremonies and half of the 2014 events—ice skating, hockey, curling, anything requiring a roofed stadium—would be held in what organizers call the Coastal Cluster, which sits beside the Black Sea about 20 miles south of the center of Sochi, an urban sprawl that’s home to nearly 400,000 people. The main 40,000-person stadium, called Fisht, features a translucent egg-shaped shell through which spectators will be able to see the snowy Caucasus. But to get to the slopes and the rest of the events—the Mountain Cluster—they will have to travel (as Simon and I did) an hour or more up the gorge of the Mzymta River, to the village of Krasnaya Polyana, a journey slightly shorter than that between Vancouver and Whistler during the 2010 Winter Olympics. The traffic was so bad when we neared Krasnaya Polyana that we turned onto a side street, and our rental car bounced on to the hotel through cavernous potholes of mud. We arrived just in time for the welcome party: dancing Cossack boys pounding on drums, girls spinning and shouting, and dozens of foreign snowboarders and freeskiers clapping and drinking.

By this time, the world was beginning to worry about Sochi’s proximity to Chechnya; about the pledge by the jihadist Caucasus Emirate to put a stop to the “satanic games”; about the exiled Circassian people, Sochi natives for whom 2014 was the 150th anniversary of a genocide; about Russia’s new laws restricting homosexuality; about Russia’s role in Syria; about graft and the Games’ record-breaking $51 billion price tag—greater by at least $8 billion than the cost of the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, the last time an authoritarian country decided to build the Best Games Ever from scratch. Some even worried about who would win and lose. But in Krasnaya Polyana, all this seemed far away. Who would win if the Games came together and were deemed an international success was obvious: Putin. The people on the losing side were everyday Russians, who saw their mountains and coast and city turned into the biggest construction project in Europe— especially the everyday Russians who dared to try and stop it.

It was the middle of winter, but Krasnaya Polyana had no snow. Even in daylight, it had almost no color: a construction site in gray scale. The village’s clamor of jackhammers and dump trucks and worker transports began at dawn, and Simon and I stepped out to follow groups of Uzbek and Kyrgyz guest workers through the side streets. They walked to their job sites with their heads down, smoking, skirting puddles. Others were already scrambling through the half-built shells of buildings that seemed to fill the valley wall-to-wall. I saw sparks from distant welders’ torches and stopped in front of one complex to count its cranes: 13. “It’s like a gold-rush town,” Simon muttered. Banners hung from the sides of many buildings, depicting the ritzy slopeside condos and hotels that would be in place when the Games begin on February 7. February temperatures in Krasnaya Polyana average 34.7 degrees, but the buildings on the banners were covered in snowdrifts. Until the clouds pulled back and I caught a glimpse of the steep peaks above, this was the only winter in sight. I found a pair of rental skis in a tiny shop across from a workers’ canteen adorned with Coca-Cola signs.

{%{"image":"","caption":"The Ponomaryov family, who moved to Sochi looking for work."}%}

A few days before we arrived, 
Putin decided to crack down on 
delays and overruns by making an 
example of one of Russia’s Olympic Committee officials, Akhmed Bilalov. At an unfinished ski jump a few hundred yards from where we stood, Putin had shamed him on national television, strongly hinting that he was corrupt. Twenty-four hours later, Bilalov was out of his post; a few months after that, he surfaced in a German hospital, where he was undergoing treatment for an inexplicable case of mercury poisoning.

The only part of the village that seemed close to completion—two rows of tall hotels and pedestrian walkways flanking the Mzymta River—was where Simon and I went to catch a gondola to the test events. If I ignored the fresh paint and endless construction mess as we approached the modern Doppelmayr gondola station, this could have been Colorado. The impression lasted until I saw Russian soldiers with automatic weapons—a nod to what lay due east of us: restive Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. The soldiers manned a metal detector. They made me scan my boots but not my skis or poles. There were also white-clad snipers hiding on the slopes, athletes said, but I was never able to spot one myself.


Some test events had been canceled for lack of snow, and disappointed competitors were already streaming to the airport. The same thing had happened the previous winter, when World Cup skiing came to Sochi for the first time. But this year there was a halfpipe, a slab of ice and snow formidable enough to have survived two weeks of rain, albeit in imperfect shape. Men’s snowboarding teams were competing as planned. To get to the halfpipe from the midway station, I had to boot-pack around a temporary fence, dodge rocks while going down a groomed run, and hop over a drainage pipe. A hundred-person crowd was assembled below, adjacent to the Olympic mogul field, which was mostly brown slush. I watched a Chinese snowboarder drop in, then a Norwegian. A competitor from the Bahamas was so proud after his last air that he pumped both arms triumphantly as he exited the pipe— and promptly caught an edge, crashing hard enough to knock his helmet off.

“Now the Italian style has arrived in Sochi!” the announcer boomed in English. An Italian boarder raced down, launched too far off the sidewall, and landed on the flat bottom of the pipe with a sickening thud.

I couldn’t understand why Putin loved to ski at Krasnaya Polyana, or why the Games would be held here, until I rode a higher lift to the top, at 7,612 feet. And then I understood very well. I popped through a cloud layer partway up, and an archipelago of peaks stretched to the horizon. Russia has many higher mountains, many mountains farther north, but here the Caucasus were equal in beauty to the Alps. The sharp, mostly treeless Aibga Ridge extended for miles to my right and left. The slopes tipped over and dropped relentlessly down. A downhiller or a sport-loving president-for-life could go fall-line for thousands and thousands of vertical feet, which I did, skiing untracked powder until it thickened into toothpaste and I dropped into the fog.

THE USUAL VICTIMS of the world’s mega-projects—unpaid or grossly underpaid migrant workers, residents forcibly evicted to make way for construction—were featured this year in a major Human Rights Watch report on Sochi alongside an unlikelier group: the 226 members of the local branch of the Russian Geographical Society. The report came out just before I visited, and the people of the RGS, accidental dissidents suddenly cast against the whole of the Russian state, became my guides to understanding what was happening to greater Sochi.

Founded in 1845, the RGS is Russia’s oldest scientific club, historically as respected and apolitical as the National Geographic Society is in the United States. During the Soviet era, branch offices were meeting places for scientists and explorers, launching points for expeditions inside the country and abroad. The club held its national meeting every five years in St. Petersburg, but otherwise each branch operated independently, setting its own agenda and raising its own funds. Though small in terms of population, Sochi was granted a branch in 1957 on the basis of the region’s extraordinary geographical variety. Local RGS members, some of the most active in all of Russia, kept it afloat by contributing dues, charging for lectures and school visits, and selling rock and plant collections as study kits to universities.

The Sochi RGS occupies the former home of a general who had been in charge of guarding Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, whose vacation dacha was hidden in thick forest just up the hill. It overlooks the gentle waves of the Black Sea and a set of train tracks carrying a rush of construction supplies in one direction, rubble in the other. The yellow house was stately and worn, and like many Russian properties, it appeared to have been suspended in amber since at least December 25, 1991, the day the Soviet Union dissolved. When Simon and I arrived from Krasnaya Polyana, however, members were building something new: a government-mandated decorative fence, which they had been ordered to install and pay for themselves. It cost nearly $14,000. The property bordered the main road between downtown Sochi and the Coastal Cluster. Everyone along the route was expected to do their part to help the city shine.

Inside, scientific secretary Maria Reneva, a soft-spoken, 40-year-old geologist and the branch’s day-to-day leader, and Yulia Naberezhnaya, a 37-year-old ecologist who wore hiking boots and a purple Gore-Tex jacket, described how they landed in Putin’s crosshairs. Maria’s husband, father, and mother were geologists, and her mother had preceded her as secretary. Maria joined the RGS in 1989 at age 16, just as the Soviet Union was breaking up. After the fall of communism, the Sochi RGS became legally independent, left to fend for itself. As other local scientific institutes collapsed along with the Soviet state, their archives found a home in the branch’s musty library, making it all the more important that the RGS stay alive. “We did everything to survive,” Maria said. “Environmental-impact assessments, geological work—everything.”

When Putin’s oligarchs began building an $8 billion combined highway and railway to the event sites in Krasnaya Polyana, aiming to cut Olympic travel time in half, the lead construction company ran into extensive limestone caves where it was planning to place a tunnel. Company officials sought out local speleologists and were directed to the RGS branch, which had Soviet-era cave studies in its library and the scientists who wrote them on its membership rolls. In this way, the branch got an early glimpse of what was about to happen to Sochi, and its members decided that they were against the road, against the Games, against all of it.

“We didn’t need to vote on whether we should oppose the Olympics,” Yulia said. “It was obvious to everyone that they were going to ruin everything.” The mountains would get more ski lifts, the river valleys highways, the caves tunnels, the beaches seawalls, and the wetlands stadiums.

Members of the RGS worked with local environmental groups to publicly voice concerns about the Olympics, but the hall they reserved was suddenly made unavailable, supposedly because of an accidental double booking. Another press conference, planned for the seashore adjacent to the new stadiums and disappearing wetland, was blocked by the government construction firm Olympstroy, which soon won a permanent injunction that effectively made certain public beaches private. To get the word out, members published articles in journals and on the club’s website, and they did as many media interviews as they could.

All of which attracted Moscow’s attention. In late 2009, the national leadership of the RGS called an extraordinary meeting: it had been decided that the organization needed a new charter. Under the proposal, branch offices would be stripped of their independent legal status. They would now get funding—and marching orders—from regional offices, which in turn would take orders from a new office of the executive director, based in Moscow. In effect, the RGS would be federalized—and the Sochi branch muzzled. In a separate vote, Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s minister of emergencies and a prominent member of Putin’s United Russia party, was elected the new president of the RGS. Until that day, he had not even been a member. Putin himself was given the surprise invitation to chair its board of trustees, which he accepted in a speech before the delegates.

“We are now the last branch that is not part of the new system,” Maria said. Any day now, a lawsuit would come from Moscow—they had been told it was imminent—and local officials were already making vague threats. “If we don’t join, we will have ‘problems,’ ” Maria said. Problems with their papers, problems with their taxes—whatever problems authorities wanted to find. Under the new charter, RGS branches could not own property, and the Sochi branch’s seaside house could be worth millions to the right oligarch. Just up the hill, glass-walled palaces were under construction along the road to Stalin’s dacha; they were rumored to belong to the local governor, another United Russia stalwart, who would use them to host guests during the Olympics. Maria and Yulia were trying to carry on as usual as they awaited the lawsuit. They told Simon and me that the branch’s monthly show-and-tell, which featured slide shows and expedition reports from regular members, would take place the coming Sunday. And if we wanted a reality tour of Olympic venues, they could give us one the day after tomorrow.{%{"quote":"Moonglade is one of 20 palaces and country cottages that Putin has for personal use, along with four yachts, 15 helicopters, and 43 aircraft."}%}

THAT SAME AFTERNOON, before Simon and I retreated to the faux luxury of our Sochi hotel, we went uphill to check out Stalin’s dacha, which you can arrange to tour. Built in 1937, its every detail was focused on keeping the dictator alive and healthy. The exterior was painted forest green, making the compound mostly invisible from above. The keyholes were airtight, so assassins couldn’t pump in poison gas. The couch in the movie room was stuffed with horsehair, which made it practically bulletproof. The steps on the staircase were precisely 13 centimeters apart, a height calibrated to Stalin’s gait, so that the brutal man who killed at least 20 million Russians wouldn’t trip and injure himself.

Every room had open windows and a balcony, a caretaker explained, “so that Stalin would get fresh air and the air would heal his lungs.” Few Russians were aware of Stalin’s poor health, she said, but it was the reason he came to Sochi in the first place. He had bad lungs and a bad back. His left arm was damaged in a childhood accident. When Stalin was born, one of his legs was an inch shorter than the other, so he wore special boots. “The second half of his life was torture,” said our guide, a wry woman who also worked as a bookkeeper. “But this is the place where sea air mixes with coniferous air. It is good for the lungs.” Stalin found his daily saltwater swims rejuvenating, too, and he decided that Sochi would be as much a boon for the average Soviet worker’s health as it was for his. The sanatoriums happened mainly because of him.

{%{"image":"","caption":"Stalin (in wax) at his old dacha in Sochi."}%}

The woman walked us past Stalin’s bedroom. For $250 a night, you could sleep here and be served three meals a day in the dacha’s dining room. She showed us where the five-foot-four dictator posed for official photos— always shot by his personal photographer, who knew how to make him look tall and powerful, sometimes by asking him to sit on a pillow. In a corner room was his billiard table.

“Stalin’s friends were scared to beat him,” she said. “They always let him win. But one of the gardeners here, one year he lost—and the next year he won! After that, Stalin improved his living conditions.”

Stalin seemed to love Sochi as much as Putin does. “What would Stalin think about the Olympics coming to Sochi?” Simon asked.

“Stalin wouldn’t have let this event happen,” she said, “because it’s just ruining the city.”

VLADIMIR PUTIN also has a Sochi dacha— three, in fact, if rumors are to be believed. The rumors are backed up by property records, leaks from whistle-blowers, federal guards at the fence lines, and photos taken by activists and construction workers and posted online. Everyone in Sochi accepted them as settled truth. At least five people—scientists, translators, mountaineers—told me they had seen a secret presidential residence with their own eyes.

One of the dachas, a $350 million Italianate mansion known as Putin’s Palace, was on the Black Sea coast north of Sochi. Another was in the woods behind Krasnaya Polyana, close to the site for the 2014 downhill-skiing events. But the one I wanted to visit was more than 6,000 feet up the snowy flanks of the highest peak in the western Caucasus, 9,363-foot Mount Fisht, the namesake of the main Olympic stadium. The place was called Lunnaya Polyana, or Moonglade, and depending on whose map you believed, it was either inside or on the border of a protected Unesco World Heritage site—“one of the few large mountain areas of Europe that has not experienced significant human impacts,”Unesco pointed out when the western Caucasus were chosen for designation in 1999.

Once construction of a main lodge began in 2002, the site was officially listed as a weather station or a “scientific center” and given the name Biosphere. But then came ski lifts and helipads and Swiss-style architecture and multiple chalets and dozens of guest rooms and four new snowcats, and it became clear that Moonglade was something else: an elite private ski resort inside a onetime wilderness. There were no passable roads here; construction materials were brought by helicopter, presumably at enormous cost. Someone had nevertheless found room in the budget for flatscreen televisions, a moose head, a swimming pool, and at least two billiard tables.

After pictures of Moonglade appeared online, Putin’s press secretary said his experiences there were “exactly” like those of “ordinary tourists.” It was an odd statement, since ordinary tourists lack helicopters, and if they came to Mount Fisht at all it was during summer, when they could follow once popular Soviet trekking routes through fields of flowers and into the stunning high country.

Hikers had been some of the first to notice the strange construction at Moonglade. Some reported being chased off by guards who forced them to delete photos from their cameras. Images got out anyway, thanks in large part to the homegrown group Environment Watch on the North Caucasus, or EWNC, which began hiking to Moonglade for annual “inspections” in 2007. Photos and surreptitiously shot video appeared. In Moscow, opposition leaders added Moonglade to a list of increasingly lavish presidential perks that they cataloged in a 2012 report called “The Life of a Galley Slave.” The title was a reference to something Putin declared after his first turn as president: “All these eight years I toiled like a galley slave, from morning until evening, with every ounce of my strength.” According to the report, Moonglade was one of 20 palaces and country cottages that Putin had available for his personal use, along with four yachts, 15 helicopters, and 43 aircraft. The authors enlarged photos of Putin’s wrist taken during various public appearances and identified a watch collection worth roughly $657,000—more than six times his official annual salary.

I had arrived in Sochi with ski-touring gear, a map of Mount Fisht, and a half-baked plan to do a Moonglade inspection of my own—but the same rains that ruined various Olympic test events scuttled my chances. Jeep roads to the trailhead were impassably muddy, there wasn’t enough snow to move quickly on skis, and the mountain guides I called laughed at my plan, saying it would take me most of a week to hike up Mount Fisht and back. So I settled for an evening train trip northwest along the Black Sea to meet the founder of EWNC, Andrey Rudomakha, a legendary Caucasus activist who was perhaps the region’s most persistent thorn in Putin’s side. My train mates passed the time smoking, drinking tea, and talking loudly on their cell phones. But when sunset came and we passed empty pebble beaches lapped by dark waves, everyone stared out the windows and there was a moment of reverent silence.

AT THE STATION in Krasnodar, the regional capital, a group of college-age men met me with a cardboard sign that read STATE DEPARTMENT. One explained the joke: “Everyone thinks we’re funded by America.” Dissent in Russia was increasingly maligned as a foreign plot, and Putin had just signed a controversial law saying that any organization that receives money from abroad has to state clearly on paper and electronic documents that it is a “foreign agent.” My hosts and I piled into a junker Lada with a missing seat and raced to the small offices of Yabloko, or Apple, a green political party. Politics were Rudomakha’s latest experiment, an attempt— not yet very successful—to see if there was a way to fight for the Caucasus beyond picket lines and press releases.

Inside, young volunteers were devouring pizza while Rudomakha—in his youth a rock guitarist, Che Guevara admirer, and founder of a commune—typed quietly at a computer. His goatee and trademark pile of dark hair were now trimmed, almost respectable. He and I grabbed slices and sat down in the kitchen. The Olympics, Rudomakha told me, were an environmental disaster that he and the EWNC were protesting at every turn. Moonglade was just as “ecologically dangerous,” because the area had formerly been so pristine, but it was also where Rudomakha had achieved a major victory. A few years ago, authorities started to build a paved road to Moonglade through the heart of the wilderness, and the EWNC filed a lawsuit, sent activists to block machinery and loggers, and made an emergency appeal to Unesco. A public warning by Unesco that it might have to add the western Caucasus to its list of threatened World Heritage sites was enough to get the road canceled, even if the ski lodge remained, and even if a fight now loomed over a different road project, to access Moonglade from the other side. “There is no law in Russia,” Rudomakha said. “That’s why most of our fights are fights to lose. But this has Unesco. We may have a chance.”

{%{"quote":"“I want to be a giant and take all the buildings and trucks and break them,” Yulia said. “It is horrible to make such things with nature.”"}%}

Why did the oligarchs need a road at all, I wondered, when they had helicopters? “National security,” Rudomakha explained. According to yet another rumor, impossible to confirm, Putin once became stuck at the dacha when a winter storm grounded his chopper. He had to go back down the mountain on foot, like an ordinary tourist. That was unacceptable.

Rudomakha had hiked in to inspect Moonglade four times, and with each visit he saw more security. Most recently, he said, there was a fence and a watchtower. Rudomakha’s deputy, a clean-shaven man named Dima, pulled out a laptop to show me on Google Maps how to find Putin’s palace on the Black Sea, which also occupied public land and was surrounded by a tall fence. Dima told the story of a time when he and another well-known EWNC activist, the biologist Suren Gazaryan, made an inspection of the palace. Inside, they came across a surprised security guard and a man in camouflage, who told Dima he was an officer in the presidential guard.

“What is the Presidential Security Service doing here?” Dima asked.

“None of your business,” the man replied.

Officers from the FSB, the successor to the KGB, appeared, along with border guards, although any border is over a hundred miles away. Then came local police and men from a private security company. “They took all our cameras,” Dima said, “and suddenly there was no mobile-phone service. They broke into Suren’s car and took notebooks, laptops, phones, modems—everything electrical.”

The activists were taken to a police station to give a written explanation of what they were doing in the supposedly public forest. “I saved one memory card in a sock,” Dima said. “It was the only media that survived.” Gazaryan was later convicted for damage to a construction fence—someone had painted THIS IS OUR FOREST! on it—then charged with attempted murder because he had picked up a small rock and told a security guard to keep his distance. Facing years in prison, he fled Russia in November 2012 and is now in exile in Estonia.

“DO YOU HAVE just one daughter, Yulia?”
I asked her this on a rainy morning as we set out with Maria to do the RGS tour of Olympic sites. It was just small talk, but she wheeled around in the front seat of the car and stared fiercely at me. “How did you know that?” she demanded. She calmed down when I reminded her that I had seen the little girl at the RGS branch earlier in the week, but in an instant I understood the atmosphere of fear that now pervaded everything. Soon the news would trickle out that Russia had set up a surveillance system in Sochi that would monitor every tweet, e-mail, and phone call made by visitors during the Olympics.

Yulia, I learned, was also a longtime member of the EWNC; she had even lived on Rudomakha’s commune in the nineties. Rudomakha and Gazaryan, meanwhile, were RGS members as well as EWNC leaders. But it was important that I distinguish between the two groups, Maria said. The Sochi RGS’s opposition to the Games wasn’t in any way political; it had everything to do with what we were about to see.

Our destination was an important wetland for migrating birds—some 200 documented species, Yulia said, plus various rare plants. A decade ago, she and the RGS spent a year and a half leading a detailed survey of flora and fauna. She handed me an old brochure showing frogs, ferns, swans, and the snowy Caucasus reflected in the deep blue of a pristine pond. “This territory was going to be a preserve,” she said. “We had all the documents prepared. It was going to be protected by the Ramsar wetlands treaty. Then it was gone.”

We turned off the highway and followed a line of giant orange dump trucks into the Coastal Cluster. Fisht and other partly built Olympic stadiums were rising out of the mud, surrounded by gravel roads and a growing forest of high-rise housing for athletes, media, and spectators. The din of construction was audible even through the closed windows of the car. Maria groaned. Yulia peered out the window. “It’s hard to say in one word how this makes me feel,” she said. “I want to be a giant and take all the buildings and trucks and break them.” She made a snapping motion with her hands. “It is horrible to make such things with nature.”

“We say this area is like Oman,” Maria said. “It has become like a desert, with no trees.”

{%{"image":"","caption":"Maria Reneva (left) and Yulia Naberezhnaya of the Russian Geographical Society"}%}

When we got to what remained of the wetland, Maria and Yulia said nothing. They didn’t need to. A series of barren ponds marked the intersection of two mud tracks plied by a steady rush of trucks. Their banks were littered with plastic bottles, construction debris, and piles of slash wood. A stray dog stood next to two portable toilets, and next to the toilets were two signs, one in Russian, one in English, that declared this apocalyptic scene the NATURAL ORNITHOLOGICAL PARK IMERETINSKAYA LOWLAND.

“On the whole territory of the Natural Park,” said the signs, “it is prohibited to perform actions leading to changing its historically formed natural landscape.” habitat for animal species—above all, endangered species—had to be preserved. Specifically, one could not hunt, damage breeding spots, harvest wild plants, pollute the water with raw sewage, or decrease the “ecological, aesthetical, and recreational qualities of the Natural Park.” The cynicism was almost brave.

From the wetland, we drove to a residential neighborhood overlooking the Coastal Cluster, stopping only for water and bread at a gas station. Yulia ate her portion in the rain in the parking lot. We were looking for a street called Bakinskaya that neither Maria nor Yulia had ever visited, but it wasn’t hard to recognize once we found it. An entire block of homes, most of them still occupied, were tilted at strange angles, as if Yulia’s angry giant had swung and missed the Olympic site and hit these houses instead. Just downhill, two apartment buildings looked like Sochi’s version of Pisa: they leaned drunkenly toward one another, propping each other up.

For two years, residents here had watched dump trucks arrive full at the top of the hill above them, then return empty. Up to 30,000 tons of Olympic debris, most of it from railroad construction, ended up in an illegal landfill. One day, after a rain, the hillside suddenly slipped, and all the homes’ foundations slipped along with it. Ten months before we visited, the government had finally agreed to resettle Bakinskaya’s residents. But ten months had passed, and the dump trucks kept dumping, and the people were still living in their slumping homes. A man Simon and I met on the street told us that he feared more landslides. Why not move? “I spent all my money on this house,” he said. He couldn’t afford to go anywhere else.

Our last stop—new to Maria but not to Yulia—was an activist encampment on the north bank of the kudepsta River, manned 24 hours a day by local residents and the occasional EWNC member. They had occupied the site for nine months, ever since a construction company put a temporary bridge here and prepared to drive heavy equipment over it. A 367-megawatt gas-fired electrical plant was to be built on the other side to power the 2014 Games. The activists, many of them pensioners in fraying sweaters who sat around a stove in a shelter made of tarps and scrap wood, feared that its noise and air pollution would alter the neighborhood forever.

They were holding a press conference today. A few minutes after we arrived, two leaders— one wearing a Yabloko jacket—began speaking to a crowd of perhaps 50 people who had gathered at the bridge. For 20 minutes they seemed formidable, ready to throw their bodies in front of the machinery again if it came rolling across the bridge. But after the local journalists left, the gathering became a discussion about strategy, and then the discussion became a bitter argument about tactics. As the rain poured down, the argument nearly came to blows. Maria led Simon and me to the car. “How can they ever win?” Simon mused. Democracy was laudable. Compared with Putinism, it was also frail.

ON MY LAST DAY in Sochi, I attended the Sunday show-and-tell at the RGS, and for a few hours no one even mentioned the Olympics. Three members, one after another, held court in the conference room, which was down the hall from the library and next door to a tiny museum filled with photos of glaciers and caves and with any geologist’s dream rock collection. Three dozen people, young and old, had packed in to see the presentations. First up was a guy who had taken a fairly standard tourist trip to the Crimean Peninsula and had the slide show to prove it. As older members lobbed questions—“What’s that called?” “Were cars allowed?”—the man sitting in front of me took frantic notes on a Hello Kitty notepad. Next was a video of a high-level trek through the Caucasus set to upbeat elevator music. Images of ibex and green alpine meadows flashed on the screen. The mountains above Krasnaya Polyana looked as stunning in summer as they did in winter.

The last presentation was totally unexpected: a gold-toothed member named Andrey had hitched exactly 19 rides and hopped an unknown number of freight trains and built one log raft and spent no more than 5,000 rubles (about $150) to travel to the top of Siberia and back the previous summer. The trip lasted 58 days. He was attacked by one seagull. “Now I will show you 259 photos,” he said. He quickly had the whole room laughing and clapping and singing along to songs he’d written on the road. I was seeing the spirit that foreigners are sometimes surprised to find in Russia but always do. It was the Russia Putin should be proud to showcase to the world in 2014.

I got an e-mail from Yulia a few days after I left: Loggers and bulldozers had been discovered cutting a new road to Moonglade, this time from the other side. She went there immediately with the EWNC and did an inspection, and she held on to her camera’s memory card; images are now all over the Internet. A little more than a month later, officers from the FSB and Russia’s Center for Combating Extremism burst into the EWNC’s main office in the nearby city of Maykop. They forced the activists to log in to their e-mail accounts, then spent 90 minutes reading through messages. They “recommended” that an upcoming EWNC report on the 2014 Olympics not be published, lest it “damage Russia.”

A few months later, Andrey Rudomakha was asked to meet with a supposed whistle-blower at a Krasnodar bus station. The man had said he was a “concerned citizen” named Alexei who had information on an illegal landfill. Instead he was from the Center for Combating Extremism, and he carried a letter from a prosecutor. Rudomakha was forced to read it out loud while the officer filmed him. Register the EWNC as a “foreign agent,” the letter said—or else.

In late April, heavy machinery and seven private security guards arrived at the north bank of the Kudepsta. Residents climbed onto parts of the bridge and jumped into the shallow river, briefly stopping their advance. Then as many as 70 police arrived and forcibly dragged them out. Three people were sent to the hospital. The machines reached the other side.

As for the Sochi RGS, the lawsuit from Moscow came in early March, as promised. But the next month, just as protesters were being pulled out of the Kudepsta River, something remarkable happened. “You may congratulate us,” the e-mail from Maria and Yulia read. “We won our case yesterday.” Moscow was signaling that the Sochi RGS would be allowed to exist. They were surprised. I was surprised. I was also reminded of something Maria had told me in Sochi. “Whatever happens to us,” she said, “they will wait until after the Olympics, when no one is paying attention anymore.”

McKenzie Funk's book Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming was published in January 2014 by Penguin Press.

Read More

Alex Honnold Isn't Afraid of Skyscrapers

In October of 2012, Alex Honnold, 28, and filmmaker Peter Mortimer, 39, were talking about making a new kind of climbing film: one that featured Honnold scaling an immense skyscraper. "We thought, Wouldn't that be a rad next thing to do," recalls Mortimer, a founder of the production company Sender Films, "soloing a big building?" Then Austrian BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner leaped from the edge of space in a Red Bull spacesuit on live television, and the pair got a better idea. They started discreetly calling networks with a bold plan: Honnold wanted to free-solo—climb without ropes—the exterior of one of the world's great skyscrapers on live TV. The National Geographic Channel bit, and in July, the station announced that Honnold would scale what turned out to be the 1,667-foot Taipei 101, in Taiwan. The climb, originally scheduled for November, was delayed, so the team could shore up the details, and is now set to take place in 2014.

The plan is to follow a routine that Honnold and Mortimer honed in Yosemite National Park: Honnold will start from the ground with little more than his climbing shoes and a chalk bag. Meanwhile, Mortimer, Sender cofounder Nick Rosen, and a team of top cameramen and riggers from the climbing world will track his progress while ascending ropes using mechanical jumars. All of which they hope will translate into a ratings bonanza. "You say it in a sentence on the elevator and someone gets it," says Mortimer.

Honnold is the biggest name among a group of adventure athletes engaging in high-risk live action-sports spectacles that seem pulled from the Evel Knievel playbook. First came Baumgartner's Stratos leap. Then, last June, highwire walker Nik Wallenda crossed a quarter-mile cable strung over the Little Colorado River while 13 million people tuned in on the Discovery Channel, setting a 13-year ratings high. In September, BASE jumper Miles Daisher announced that he'd try to complete Knievel's failed motorcycle jump over the Snake River Canyon. Meanwhile, "Sketchy" Andy Lewis—the slackliner who made his name performing in a toga during Madonna's 2012 Super Bowl halftime show—announced plans to walk a 360-foot line strung between two towers of Las Vegas's Mandalay Bay resort.

In many ways, these projects represent a return to an old form of entertainment. "This idea of doing spectacular stunts goes back to the age of the circus," says Syracuse University communications professor Robert Thompson. "And it's pretty consistent with the needs of contemporary digital media." In an era of diminished ratings and fractured attention spans, what could be more compelling than an athletic feat accentuated by the very real prospect of televised tragedy? "When you get someone who's really pushing the absolute limits of human capability, that taps into something very aspirational in our viewers," says Discovery executive producer Howard Schwartz, who was behind the Wallenda walk. "And, to be completely frank, there's will-he-or-won't-he-make-it appeal."

No one's better suited to this sort of high-profile undertaking than Honnold, a goofy, doe-eyed kid who burst onto the climbing scene in 2008 by free-soloing Yosemite's iconic Half Dome. He later cracked the mainstream when Citibank featured him in a commercial shot near Moab, Utah, and 60 Minutes ran a special on him using footage from Sender Films. "He's bigger than climbing," says Mortimer. "He's doing things that won't get done again for a generation, if ever. If you put all of our business into two boxes, and one was Alex Honnold and the other was everything else, Alex is the biggest box."

For his part, Honnold is typically self-effacing about the forthcoming climb—"It's a lucky coincidence that what I enjoy doing happens to be the most photogenic," he says. But he's well aware that Taipei could represent his international coming-out party. Honnold won't discuss specific figures, but he acknowledges that he'll be paid "vastly more than anything I've encountered in the climbing world" for the project.

Once Honnold and Mortimer sold the idea to National Geographic, they had to negotiate the tricky process of convincing a building owner to host the event. They landed first on the world's tallest building, Dubai's Burj Khalifa, which Honnold examined closely last year. "Just the scout is a life-list experience, something to tell your grandkids about," he says. "You're rappelling off the edge of the biggest building in the world." Ultimately, though, he and Mortimer settled on the world's second-tallest skyscraper, the Taipei 101. "The Burj was just too hardcore for me," says Honnold. "It's the El Capitan of buildings."

At first the Sender crew were extremely secretive about their Taiwanese target, not wanting to attract attention. To preserve the surprise, Honnold scouted the moves of his upcoming climb at dawn. "You have to actually touch everything, because you're not sure what the construction is like the whole way—whether there's an insurmountable eight-foot blank spot 1,500 feet up the building," he says.

Honnold maintains that the climb itself isn't that demanding, and that the most perilous eventuality would be a piece of architecture breaking off. As with Wallenda's Colorado River highwire walk, the broadcast will happen on a ten-second delay, which will give producers time to cut away should something go wrong. (Many of the best free soloists, including Dan Osman, Derek Hersey, and Michael Reardon, have died in climbing accidents.) And while the organizers have tried to get Honnold to employ safety devices ranging from parachutes to crash pads, the climber has managed to convince them that he has things under control.

"You don't go forward on a project like this if there's a 15 percent chance you're not going to make it," he says. "There's a 100 percent chance I'm going to make it." Or maybe he won't. You'll just have to watch.

Read More

Free Newsletters

Dispatch This week's featured articles, reviews, and videos. Sent twice weekly.
News From the Field The most important breaking news from around the Web. Sent daily.
Outside GOOur hottest adventure-travel tips and trips. Sent occasionally.
Outside Partners Outside-approved deals and special offers from select partners. Sent occasionally.

to Outside
Save Over

Magazine Cover

iPad Outside+ App Access Now Included!







Previous Posts




Blog Roll

Current Issue Outside Magazine

Subscribe and get a great deal! Two free Buyer's Guides plus a free GoLite Sport Bottle. Monthly delivery of Outside—your ultimate resource for today's active lifestyle. All that and big savings!

Free Newsletters

Dispatch This week's featured articles, reviews, and videos. Sent twice weekly.
News From the Field The most important breaking news from around the Web. Sent daily.
Gear of the Day The latest products, reviews, and editors' picks. Coming soon.
Outside Partners Outside-approved deals and special offers from select partners. Sent occasionally.

Ask a Question

Our gear experts await your outdoor-gear-related questions. Go ahead, ask them anything.

* We might edit your question for length or clarity. If it's not about gear, we'll just ignore it.