The moon floated at the same height at all times, a bright light on the horizon. It was late October and pitch black, the temperature down near -30 C, the winds blustery. Steve Podborski and an international Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics delegation had sailed for five days aboard a Russian nuclear-powered ice breaker to the North Pole, to carry the Olympic torch where it had never gone before.
The ship’s captain remarked, while sailing northward from the Russian port of Murmansk, that the vessel had never made the journey in October, and he wasn’t sure how things would go. The first day featured such violent seas that numerous passengers were waylaid, badly ill, in their cabins.
“Rough would be a vast understatement,” said Podborski, Canada’s chef de mission for the Sochi Games. At the North Pole, he carried the torch off the deck, down a set of stairs and out on the ice, handing it off to a Swede. It was 9:30 p.m. Moscow time. The ship was at the Pole for a dozen hours and headed back.
“It was a wonderful adventure,” the 56-year-old Podborski said. “The Russians are good showmen. When we get to Sochi, the Russians will get it done.”
To Podborski, the journey to the Pole was a metaphor for the Games, an ambitious idea pulled off somewhat haphazardly. The Sochi Games will be a particularly complex challenge for team executives such as Podborski. They are the most expensive Olympics ever, Summer or Winter, a cost of more than $50-billion to erect the apparatus of a winter sports festival in a beach resort on the Black Sea and nearby mountains. And the potential for chaos is rampant. There is the churning controversy over human rights surrounding the Russian law aimed against gay people, which countries are already quietly protesting. And a potentially larger issue looms: the spectre of regional terrorism, with the proximity of not-long-ago wars in Chechnya and Georgia and recent threats against the Games. Security will be omnipresent, and intense.
It is Podborski’s job to help Canada deliver results on the investment of more than $100-million in the 221 athletes the country is sending, shielding Team Canada from the messy unpredictability of Sochi. His title of chef de mission doesn’t immediate resonate with non-French speakers – “fire up the sushi knives,” joked Podborski, whose livewire comments oscillate between serious and irreverent. The role, head of the mission, encompasses myriad jobs: chief fixer, cheerleader, consoler, a prominent face and personality of Canada’s Olympic team.
“It’s not fun, being the chef,” Podborski said. “I mean, there’s fun parts – but it’s a ton of work. And there’s stuff that happens in the background that you’ll never hear about, and with good reason. It’s a ton of responsibility.”
Last April, Podborski stood in a likely setting for one of Canada’s greatest-ever international athletes. On skis in the shade, he was on the Dave Murray Downhill on Whistler Mountain near the finish, right after a treacherous turn and atop a steep stretch before the final careen down one of the tougher ski race courses in the world. On a Sunday morning, the mountain quiet, Podborski leaned on his poles, which were nestled in his armpits, his legs parallel and turned 15 degrees at the hips – a racer’s lean. He was telling yarns.
One story harks back to Lake Placid in 1980, where Podborski’s bronze in the downhill represented half of Canada’s medal total and there were terrible transportation problems. In one instance, a traffic cop strongly suggested to a recalcitrant bus driver that he ferry a group of freezing spectators, who had been waiting forever, to their destination. The driver said it wasn’t his route. The cop, drawing his gun, encouraged the driver to make the run.
At the Athens Summer Games of 2004, when Podborski was a broadcaster for NBC, the power went out moments after his show concluded – viewers at home were not treated to a blank screen.