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10 Russian words to help you enjoy the Winter Olympics

Les Jeux olympiques d’hiver, Olympische Winterspiele, Juegos Olímpicos de Invierno – regardless of your first language or geographical location, you’ve probably struggled to escape news of this year’s Winter Olympics. The XXII Olympic Games open on 7 February in Sochi (Сочи), Russia, and promise to deliver two weeks of nail-biting sporting action. In honour of this year’s hosts, why not beat your own PB (‘personal best’) and get to grips with a little Russian language? Here are ten useful words for you to master this fortnight:

1. Тseremoniia otkrytiia (церемония открытия)

Let’s start at the beginning: the tseremonia otkrytiia – opening ceremony – is normally one of the most-watched events of the Olympic Games. Keep your eyes peeled for a lavish parad (парад), meaning ‘parade’, and of course the olimpiiskii ogon’ (олимпийский огонь) – the Olympic flame.

2. Snegopad (снегопад)

Snowfall has been a major cause for concern in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, with organizers going to extreme lengths to ensure that there’s enough of the white stuff to go around. Snegopad, meaning ‘snowfall’, comes from the noun for snow, sneg (снег) and the root pad– (пад), meaning ‘fall’. But don’t let that fool you. In Russian, snow doesn’t fall – it ’goes’. Better, then, to ask: idiot li sneg? (идет ли снег?) or is the snow going?

3. Sbornaia (сборная)

We all know that there’s no ‘i’ in team. And in Russian, the word for ‘national team’ even originates from the verb ‘come together.’ In Russian, the word sbornaia – from the verb sobirat’ (собирать), meaning ‘to assemble’ – refers to a country’s national team. Talk about hockey teams (or football teams, for that matter) and you’ll need the word komanda (команда), which denotes a group of people playing a sport together. Unless that sport involves a sleigh, in which case you’ll need to use the word ekipazh (екипаж). Hmm. Probably best not to talk about teams.

4. Katat’sia (кататься)

Katat’sia is a wonderful verb that, by itself, is sometimes translated as ‘go for a drive’ – often on horseback (katat’sia na loshadi/кататься на лошади). You can also pair katat’sia up with a couple of nouns for some useful winter sports vocabulary. Katat’sia na lyzhakh (кататься на лыжах) means ‘to ski’ – literally ‘ride on skis’, while katat’sia na kon’kakh (кататься на коньках) means ‘to skate’. And while ‘bobsleigh’ in Russian may be bobslei (бобслей), you can at least use katat’sia to describe the event itself: katat’sia s gor (кататься с гор) is often translated as ‘to toboggan’ (literally: ride from a mountain).

5. Katok (каток)

Some of the most elegant sports of the Winter Olympics will be seen on the ice rink (katok), the home of figurnoe katanie (фигурное катание) – figure skating – and kerling (керлинг) or ‘curling.’ Russians are also partial to a spot of ice hockey and, like North Americans, use the noun khokkei (хоккей) to mean the game played at a rink rather than on a field. Russian doesn’t have the sound h at its disposal, so pronounce khokkei with an attractive kh (like –ch in loch) instead.

6. Start (старт)

Rather than using the noun nachalo (началo), meaning ‘beginning or start’, Russian borrows the English word ‘start’ to mark the starting point for a race. At Russian sporting events you’re also likely to hear the phrase na start! (на старт!) – or ‘on your marks!’

7. Finish (финиш)

Not only do Russian races start in English, but they end in English too. The first skier over the line crosses the finish. From ‘finish’ also comes the verb finishirovat’ (финишировать), or ‘to cross the finish line’ – substantially easier to remember than priiti k finishu (прийти к финишу), which uses more words to say exactly the same thing.

8. Pobeditel’ (победитель)

You won’t get very far in a Russian-language discussion about the Olympics without the word pobeditel’, meaning ‘winner’ or ‘victor’. Equally important is the word pobeda (победа), which means ‘victory’. Get in the Sochi spirit by cheering like a Russian speaker in your own home: nothing says ‘well done’ like a few hearty cries of ura (ура) – ‘hooray’. Shout it loudly and repeatedly – ooh-RAH! ooh-RAH! – for extra authenticity.

9. Medal’ (медаль)

Fortunately for language learners, Russian sports vocabulary is full of borrowings from Western European languages. Take first, second, or third place in any Olympic event and you will receive a medal’ for your efforts. You’re equally likely to hear ‘award with a medal’ (nagradit’ medal’iu/наградить медалью) or ‘win a medal’ (vyigrat’ medal’/выиграть медаль). And, despite Russian’s propensity to verbalize any foreign noun it can get its hands on, you’re unlikely to hear medalirovat‘ (медалировать). Russian speakers often transform foreign nouns into verbs by adding the suffixovat’ (-овать) – although whether Russian media will embrace ‘to medal’ remains to be seen..

10. Biudzhet (бюджет)

No Olympic Games is complete without a scandal or two to grab the attention of the world’s media. One of the most contentious issues of the Sochi Games is the budget – or biudzhet (yet another French loan word). The Games are purportedly the most expensive in Olympic history, and – like any major international event – have been mentioned in the same sentence as sorit’ den’gami (сорить деньгами), or ‘to squander money.’ Regardless of how much was – or wasn’t – spent on Sochi, the Olympics are certain to be a spectacle (zrelishche/зрелище).


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