Hot on ice: ‘Why don’t Russians smile?’ and other most-searched questions


The most decorated Winter Olympian, albeit handsome, looks a tad overdressed for Sochi. That’s because Apolo Ohno’s out of a skin suit and in his two-piece as an NBC analyst.

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But still the wistful question persists: Is Apolo Ohno skating in the 2014 Olympics? And there are plenty more queries where that came from (e.g. Yahoo Search). Here are others that have been puzzled spectators at the start of XXII.

How many countries are in the Olympics? It’s a number that Beijing (and superstitious Chinese) would’ve loved: 88 nations, the most ever, have come to Sochi.

What do the Olympic rings mean? Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who drew them in 1913, explained: “These five rings represent the five parts of the world now won over to Olympism and ready to accept its fertile rivalries. Moreover, the six colours thus combined reproduce those of all the nations without exception.” Those nations were in the continents of Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and — intriguingly — Oceania.

How old is Putin? The Russian president is 61 years old. Notably, Putin signed a law last year making 70 the retirement age for senior government officials, which reversed earlier efforts to make mandatory retirement at age 60 or 65.

How tall is Bob Costas? Actually most of the questions dealing with the NBC sportscaster were about that puffy eye of his, but a few did wonder about his verticality. Most sources list Costas as 5’7″, but he admitted as recently as January, “I know I’m 5’6″ and some kind of fraction, and so I’ve always thought the fraction went up so I list myself as 5’7″.”

Why is French the official language of the Olympics? Actually, the Olympics has two official languages, French and English. Consider however that the abovementioned de Coubertin, who founded the global athletic gathering, was French and the first modern Games was held in Paris.

Why do Olympians bite their medals? Yahoo Sports answered that back during the London Olympics. Historically, that’s how people tested if something were made of gold, but these days, yes, you can partly blame the media.

Why are there so many stray dogs in Sochi? According to the New York Times, many strays had once been pets or offspring of pets. To build the Olympic venues, homes were demolished and families paid to move into apartment buildings where pets don’t fit in well. Overall, like many countries, animal control services like spaying and neutering haven’t been a high priority.

[ Related: Winter Olympian or Bond villain? ]

Why is India banned from the Olympics/why is India not in the Olympics? Corruption in India, sadly, is well-documented, and it was in outrageous display at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The International Olympic Committee suspended the country’s association in 2012 after it hired the same guys who ran those games. India agreed to the Olympic charter so its athletes could come, but it was supposed to hold its election for new leadership before the Games’ opening ceremony. Instead, India scheduled the vote for Feb. 9, which meant the three Olympains who made it to Sochi — luger Shiva Keshavan as well as skiers Himanshu Thakur and  Nadeem Iqbal, couldn’t carry the country flag and instead bore one with the Olympic rings — a sight which led to people wondering: Why are there independent Olympic athletes?

Why does Hong Kong have an Olympic team? Although the region was returned to China in 1997, its status as a Special Autonomous Region of the PR China allowed it to retain a separate sports federation and Olympics committee, similar in situation to Macau and Puerto Rico (which is a U.S. territory).

Why don’t Russians smile? Let’s turn that question around and ask: Why do Americans smile so much? The U.S. propensity of cheeriness — even if they aren’t feeling it — perplexes some cultures, and smiling at strangers has been considered “an Americanism” which reveals an “imperialist wolf revealing its teeth.” According to one native, “In Russia only two types of people smile: idiots and rich people — and rich people don’t walk on the street.” Russians save their smiles for their friends. As for digging any deeper into the Soviet soul, pick up an Alexander Pushkin or Fyodor Dostoevsky.

“In Russia only two types of people smile: idiots and rich people – and rich people don’t walk on the street.”

“In Russia only two types of people smile: idiots and rich people – and rich people don’t walk on the street.”

“In Russia only two types of people smile: idiots and rich people – and rich people don’t walk on the street.”

Why do Russian names end in ‘v’? It’s a complicated tradition of surnames and patronymics and —well, read this fine treatise on Russian names by Paul Goldschmidt. He does note that surnames didn’t really come into use until the 19th century and often they denoted profession or one’s father’s profession. “Therefore, Barsukov (literally, “son of a badger”) and Miasnikov (“son of a butcher”) probably are surnames and not patronymics and therefore mean “the Badger” and “the Butcher” respectively.” Check this chart of surname translations.

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