SOCHI, Russia – There is a new sport sweeping these Winter Olympics, and the Russians aren't faring too well at it. Well, Russian men at least. Russian women are doing just fine.
In between watching Evgeni Plushenko get injured and Russia get Oshie'd and ice dancers twizzle about, Russian women are partaking in an age-old custom: flirting. And according to local women, after looking at what the international scene has to offer, they're saying Russian men don't deserve gold, silver or bronze.
It was Anna who first told me this. An Olympic volunteer, she wore the kind of boredom that can only rest on the face of someone who spends eight hours a day scanning barcodes of journalists' accreditation passes and not getting paid a dime for it.
After a few minutes of idle chatter, I asked her what her favorite memory of the Olympics would be. "The people I met," she said thoughtfully, starting a narrative that began like it came from the "Politically Correct Things That Volunteers Should Say to Nosy Journalists" handbook. But then she flipped the script.
"Actually, the men I met," she added in near-perfect English. "I know what I want now. I want to marry a foreign man."
Such a bold statement would have been a shock if I hadn't already heard rumors of such sentiments on previous trips to this country. Svetlana Kolchik, deputy editor-in-chief of Russia's version of Marie Claire magazine, wrote an article about it a few years back that was even featured on Russia's government-run news service, RIA Novosti.
Kolchik wrote of a trend that saw Russian women, especially young professionals, "gradually shifting towards foreigners." While there is no medal table for this oldest of all sports and no way of keeping overall score, it is clear that the host nation is not capitalizing on home-field advantage.
The fact that Russian women are often acclaimed as being among the most beautiful in the world would seem to be a wonderful boost for the Russian man. Sure, he might have a short lifespan and be stuck in one of the coldest countries on earth while seeing most of his domestic hockey heroes flee for the NHL. But, hey, the eye candy is good here, da?
Yet around the Olympic venues, as furtive looks and glances and smiles are traded quicker than those ever-present pins, local guys are in danger of being shut out of the podium. While Russian women, at least from the looks of it in Sochi, love many things – skintight pants, designer handbags, diet drinks and oversized sunglasses – they are none too fond of their nation's men.
This is clearly marvelous news for the single male traveler. I don't fall into that category – I'm happily married to a wonderful woman – yet it was still intriguing. Can a nation's female population suddenly turn against its males, like some kind of sci-fi intra-colony gender mutiny?
With an hour to kill before the U.S.' latest speedskating debacle, I started to ask around. No one seemed bothered by the topic and plenty warmed to the theme in varying degrees of broken English and confusing grammar. All thought Russian men didn't stack up with their international counterparts.
Anya liked Italian men but couldn't figure out why. Olga thought Americans were "cool." Irina used to date a British man and thought he was "great like Hugh Grant but a little more boring." Anna said the Dutch were tall. But is that a good thing? "Maybe, but only if his teeth are correct," she added.
"Russian men smoke too much cigarettes and they drink too much," said Katarina, a bank worker whose father gave her an Olympic figure skating ticket as a birthday present. "They smoke a lot of cigarettes. They do not like to talk to women very much. It is more of an old-fashioned attitude."
Katarina did not, however, appreciate me asking if part of the reason for her trip was to meet foreign men.
"No, of course not," she said. "I come to Sochi to watch the Olympic Games and to see something very nice. It is a special bonus, like a treat. There are more men from other countries here and that is good for me. They are handsome and they have many things that are more appealing to me."
It doesn't take Olympic-style reflexes, only a moderate helping of opportunism, for the savvy foreign visitor to pounce upon this trend. The M.O. of the Russian women in Olympicville seems consistent. Eye contact, look down, look back, smile, look away.
For a young male American I bumped into, it has all been a learning experience.
"At first I thought I noticed it from the volunteers and didn't think much of it because they're supposed to smile at you and be friendly," said 25-year-old Carl, an advertising executive who fulfilled a long-held ambition by visiting Russia for the Games. "But then I realized it was a lot more than that, too. I don't want to sound arrogant – I'm OK looking – but honestly, this is awesome."
Carl is a bit of a cad, caddish enough that Carl isn't his real name. He asked for it to be changed because he is dating someone back home – "Kind of seriously," he said – but that hasn't stopped him from arranging dinner with a young Russian student he met in the Olympic Park, leaving him to frantically figure out if there is a Russian version of Yelp to look for Sochi restaurants.
Maybe Carl shouldn't get his hopes up. Maybe it is all a plot from Vladimir Putin to keep smiles on visitors' faces. Maybe the Russian guys are in on the joke, ready to reclaim their women from the swooning gaze of foreigners the moment the Olympic flame is extinguished.
Probably not. From Russia, with love, Anna gave me a parting shot to remember.
"Maybe you can call me?"
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