American skier Gus Kenworthy left the 2014 Olympics with a silver medal in slopestyle, but it wasn't the only keepsake he'd come back with from his time in Sochi.
Thanks to the help of his friend, Whistler sports photographer Robin Macdonald, the Colorado freestyle skier now has two cute and cuddly canine companions from the Russian resort to call his own.
It all started just days before the Opening Ceremonies, when Macdonald, the press manager for the British Virgin Islands ski team, snapped a photo of a family of five stray dogs milling around a security tent. Macdonald sent the image to his friend Kenworthy, an admitted dog lover, and arranged to take some portrait shots of the 22-year-old athlete with his new puppy pals.
Kenworthy posted the shots to his Twitter account, and overnight, the story took off, getting attention from major news outlets as far away as Egypt, and even earning the young skier a new fan: pop superstar Miley Cyrus.
When Kenworthy got back to the U.S. his support of the Sochi strays led to appearances on Fox News, The Today Show and a number of morning shows. Macdonald isn't surprised at the flurry of attention Kenworthy and his dogs have inspired.
"When it comes to the Olympics, a majority of the media are not there to cover the Games, and don't understand the Games," he said. "(Journalists in Sochi) are watching these athletes' Twitter feeds because those are the people they're going to report on, and when they saw the puppy thing, they switched from writing about crappy hotels and jumped on the puppy wagon."
At first, many in the media were unaware that Kenworthy didn't actually return stateside with the puppies in tow. In fact, it was Macdonald who stayed in Sochi for a month after the Games ended to deal with Russian authorities reluctant to release the dogs.
"The media was kind of confused as to what was happening," Macdonald said. "(Kenworthy) would show up on morning shows, and they would just bring random dogs on from shelters... and doing all this dog-related stuff."
Swept up in all the hoopla were the other U.S. skiers who shared a podium with Kenworthy; gold medallist Joss Christensen and third-place finisher Nick Goepper, who would appear on live TV with Kenworthy only to find themselves discussing the Sochi pups, Macdonald said.
The headaches the photographer endured in trying to bring the dogs back to North America were due to a Russian politician claiming the stray puppies as her own. Russian officials housed the dogs in a government building for weeks, Macdonald said, and refused to send them to a vet he had arranged for. Eventually, one of the puppies died in the Russians' care, and at that point, wanting to avoid negative press, Macdonald said officials were finally willing to let the dogs go.
Before leaving Sochi, Macdonald acquired another puppy that had gone through a botched surgery, Mishka, who has since been adopted by Kenworthy, along with pup Jake. Kenworthy's mom adopted the mother of the litter, who is adjusting nicely to her new life in Telluride, Macdonald said. Another dog was taken in by a Humane Society International employee, and unfortunately, the fifth dog passed away after coming to the U.S., a tragedy that Macdonald said could have been prevented if the Russian government had allowed him to seek medical attention for the puppy earlier on.
The photographer admitted he has been criticized by some for bringing dogs from Russia when there are plenty filling shelters across North America waiting to be adopted. But, with the horrific Whistler sled dog cull from 2010 still fresh in his mind, he maintains that it was the right thing to do.
"We don't have a stray dog problem like they do in other places of the world," he said. "There are shelters here that are full, there are shelters in the States that are full, and it wasn't my intention to neglect dogs back home and bring more dogs over here, but it was more so that it helped gain awareness."
And with Rio de Janeiro hosting the World Cup this summer and the 2016 Olympics, the issue of stray dogs should be thrust into the spotlight once again, Macdonald said.
"It's not the Olympics that kills dogs or displaces homeless people, it's the governments that do it... I just hope that there are enough people in the media involved with this story who adopted dogs of their own, that when they go to cover these events that will be prevalent in the news again."