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September 18, 2014

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Behind these Olympic doors is anyone’s guess

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Doug Mills/The New York Times

Wax cabins” near the practice course for Nordic combined at the RusSki Gorki Jumping Center in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, Feb. 16, 2014. Like any world, the Olympics has its own secret language, a shorthand that can seem mystifying to the uninitiated.

SOCHI, Russia — Deep in the back alleyways of the Ice Cube Curling Center in the Olympic Park stands a door marked “TER Secondary.” It is not clear exactly what goes on in there or why it is so close to doors labeled “Language Services” and “Venue Technology Operations,” but it is further evidence, if any was needed, that the Olympics occupy an exotic alternative world that makes sense only on its own terms.

Every four years, wildly disparate winter sports come together to form an instant civilization that lasts for a few weeks and then dissolves peacefully back into its constituent parts. Like any world, it has its own secret language, a shorthand that can mystify the uninitiated. Take the VM Office door at the curling arena.

“Venue management,” explained a woman who turned out to be behind that very door. It had just opened unexpectedly, revealing the on-duty VM Office staff — her and a colleague — to be eating lunch and watching the biathlon on television. “We’re ruling all the stuff at the venue.”

At the curling arena, some doors were easier to fathom than others. The Sport Manager Room was simple: The sport manager manages sport. Timing and Scoring Storage? Also self-explanatory, since timing and scoring devices surely have to be stored somewhere. And there was the Mascot Dressing Room, where perhaps a lucky visitor might happen upon a half-dressed bear.

But what was the C & W Dressing Room? Many of the doors said “Staff Only” in English, yet were rendered at least three ways in Cyrillic. A succession of hand-lettered signs pointed down four corridors and stairwells - through storage areas for chocolate power bars, for drywall shelves and for empty refrigerators marked “beer” - to a final destination, far above the ice, known by the mysterious designation “Eng Platform C.”

One door, alarmingly, appeared to scream “Danger!” in about five ways in Russian, but in English said only: “In case of black out or lack of voltage in a socket.”

What was the difference between the Ice Technicians Room and the Ice Technicians Working Area Room?

A worker who came out of the Ice Technicians room looked to be in a prime position to explain. Alas, no. “Probably you can ask Hans — he’s the main ice maker,” he said. But Hans was not there, nor was he in the nearby Ice Technicians Working Area office, which maintained its mystique by virtue of being locked.

A lot of the other doors were locked, too. And while it would have been exciting to see what was going on in the Water Purification/Preparation/Treatment room, it was probably just as well that all was quiet in the Russian Federal Guards Services Unit.

Some Olympic signs are odd to outsiders but not to people who have been to an Olympics or two. The Mixed Zone, with its connotations of coed bathrooms, might not be the best name for a place where reporters interview athletes (how about Interview Zone?), but that is what the place is called. Every venue has one.

Here in Sochi, every venue also has its Access Control Points, its Interpretation Booths, its Athletes’ Dressing Rooms and its Doping Control Station, cheerily designated with cartoons of two urine sample containers that resemble baby bottles and are labeled A and B. Every venue has Broadcast Commentary Positions, a Jury Appeal Room and a Logistics Office. And each also seems to have something related to CER and sometimes to TER, either in a primary or a secondary capacity.

“I’m sorry, but this is secret information,” said an official who suddenly popped out from behind the CER & TER Primary door at the biathlon station and who quickly popped back inside again, groundhog-style.

Some venues have Wax Cabins; others do not. But it is fair to bet that only the figure skating arena has a place called Entertainment Dressing Room or a place called Costume Repair Room. And only the biathlon stadium has a Rifles and Ammunition Storage Room.

“Unfortunately, we can’t show you,” said an official stationed outside that room, which was protected by a steel gate, like a bank vault.

Then there was the Dry Shooting Room, which looked like nothing special, maybe a high school rec room in a school district with a limited rec room budget. “They practice here without ammunition,” said Evgenia Karbusheva, a volunteer.

Some of the oddness can be attributed to language confusion, which is nobody’s fault. And while most of the English renditions of Russian signs are admirably clear, others look as if they were written by rogue translators who sneaked into the office when the official translators were at lunch.

How else would you explain the blameless regular garbage can in the Olympic Park that reads “Food Waste Accumulation Area”? Or the sign by the concession stand at the ice-hockey venue reading “Please Take Your Drinks Before Paying”?

Perhaps the best signs are near spectators’ entrances to the biathlon competition, which you reach after walking some way up a hill. They appear to have sprung from nothing more than the friendly imagination of some Olympic sign producer who has been reading a motivational manual for the armchair athlete.

“Just Several Meters More — and You’ll Reach the Goal!” one reads.

Before you know it, you are more or less being awarded your own gold medal, for the arduous sport of successfully making your way nearly to your seat.

“We Know the Journey Was Difficult,” the sign reads, “and We Are So Proud of You!”

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