Twenty-one economy class hours, two language-gap laden layovers and one intestine-contorting Cinnabon later and I'm in a Russian resort city that's doing a piss-poor job of preparing for an event that's already begun. Sochi is what one would expect in that regard, nonstop nouveau riche opulence as the backdrop for an authoritarian regime's ham-fisted attempt at putting on airs. Still, it's the Olympic Winter Games, which means one thing: figure goddamn skating.
But first, getting to the hotel and spitefully tweeting whatever suboptimal accommodations catch my privileged ire. One broken conversation with a craggily pockmarked cabbie later and I'm once again on my way.
Not more than a few minutes after leaving Sochi International Airport, my phone buzzes with a number both unfamiliar and vaguely impossible based on its collection of digits punctuated by parentheses, stars and other Lucky Charms marshmallows.
"Rios, yes?" says a Russian voice meant to star as the villain in Taken 3: Turtles In Time. Something resembling a cogent affirmative response escapes my lips and my new Russian friend starts sharing.
"The team figure skating … it is fixed for Russia. Find Glaz. Only Glaz can help," the voice says before driving the greater point home. "Remember, nothing is real. Good luck, Rios."
The phone clicks dead on his end and dialing back sends me to the H.R. department of Ohio's Aggressive Shade, Mirror & Framing Co. I stare at my phone in silence trying to convince myself that this must be someone's idea of a prank.
The silence is broken by the cabbie slamming his brakes and announcing our arrival at the hotel. I hand over some cash and glance up in time to see the cabbie's pockmarks turn outward and mutate his face into a bulbous mess of keloids. One blink and everything is back to normal save for the feeling that I should take my nameless Russian friend's warning seriously, which means finding Glaz. But first, I turn on my hotel room's inexplicably triangular TV to be greeted by Bob Costas' festering left eye and news that the Japanese and Canadian figure skating teams will sit out several of their best skaters. The TV then changes channels on its own and starts flashing images of a Bozo-ish clown gleefully bludgeoning a displaced Russian villager with a leather-bound copy of Ayn Rand's collected works. I tell myself it's not real and head off in search of Glaz.
* * *
"Uh, are you high?" is Will Leitch's response to my story. We're in the Iceberg Skating Palace watching the team event pairs short program and, even though I am not in fact high, I wonder if he has a point. Leitch turns away and a flaming all-seeing eye of Providence briefly appears on the back of his head. Meanwhile, Russia is a mile ahead in the pairs short program and Glaz is still nowhere to be found. Evgeni Plushenko's second place finish in that day's mens short program has the feel of another step towards a perfectly calibrated fix.
Some cursory iPhone googling of "Glaz" tells me little besides it being the Russian word for "eye" and that Glaz-Tech Industries has the commercial glass solutions I need. As a modern web writer, the thought of doing Real Reportering is a bit foreign and icky, but if the fix really is in, Google isn't going to cut it -- I need to hustle my way into the deep end of Sochi's gambling scene.
A few calls to friendly reporters all point me in the same direction: Sochi's Black Sea coast, one of Russia's most hardcore gambling zones. I head off the next day armed with a voice recorder, my favorite navy grenadine tie and a bottle of water that transmutes into boiling Tang everytime I go to take a swig. Meanwhile, Russia is building on its lead.
* * *
The supposed hub within the hub is a nondescript, unmarked bar tucked away on the Sochi coast's northern edge, and with good reason. Smoke of all varieties is the defining smell and the only way to get accustomed to it is by downing the local moonshine, which has what I imagine to be the viscosity and taste of poorly aged prison wine. Another swig of the boiling Tang makes for a shockingly half-decent palate cleanser. Girded up with liquid courage, I get to it.
"I'm looking for Glaz… he's, uh, expecting me, yeah, totally."
Fielding my request is an ancient bartender with prison tattoos covering every bit of exposed skin, save for a sharpied rendering of Pikachu on his Adam's apple that won't stop winking at me.
"Glaz? No Glaz here, sorry."
"I know you're lying. Where is Glaz?"
"You see this?" he says while pointing to his bluish tattoo of the word 'CEBEP'. "I got this in Magadan Prison, I was there because someone called me a liar."
A bottle shatters over my head before anything pithy can escape my mouth and the pleasant fuzziness of fading away sets in.
* * *
I wake up on the floor of a stainless steel room and someone is sitting in a chair facing away from me.
"Dude, you better be Glaz," is all I can think to say.
"Yes, you could say I am Glaz," the figure says in a familiar, comforting voice that hits me like an epiphanic left hook.
"Wait, no… It can't be you."
The figure wheels around in his chair and it's him. It's Bob Costas, and his festering left eye is floating over his head. The unoccupied space it left behind is all dripping viscera and gleaming pus, but Costas' smile suggests he's none too bothered by it.
"I suppose I owe you an explanation," Costas offers as an opening before letting it all out. "You see, calling sports is only so much fun for so long -- the real thrill is controlling sports, and doing it in broad daylight."
I can only think to ask why, why risk your status as a preeminent sportscaster just for kicks?
"I'm motherf---ing Bob Costas. No one can touch me or my eye or any goddamn part of me. People like you don't live in the world I do and you'll never understand why I do anything I do. Just take in the show I let everyone enjoy. Take in the art."
"So you're the reason why the Mets suck?"
The eye winks and the walls of the room start closing in on me. Costas waves goodbye and disappears the moment I blink. I sit down in the empty chair, close my eyes and decide to die with my eyes closed and the image of Mookie Wilson hitting a ball between Bill Buckner's legs.
* * *
I open my eyes to check in on death's progress and I'm at home in my bed. My laptop is open and playing Julia Lipnitskaia's brilliant free program in the team event. I take a swig from the boiling Tang water bottle someone thought to leave on my nightstand. The water tastes like water this time and I settle in as Lipnitskaia nails one of her gyroscopic spins. Glaz did one helluva job.
This has been a true story that is true, because you read it, and it's true.