So what the bleep is going on in Sochi?
Why is it that the Twitter hashtag #sochiproblems has more followers than the Twitter feed for the games? How is it that all we hear from the Western press is negativism, while from the athletes and local observers there are only raves for the fantastic facilities? Why do pictures of double toilets and unfinished hotels continue to flood the inter-tubes? And what idiot gave the order to kill puppies in Sochi?
Let’s try to find some answers.
Olympic Dreams and Soviet-style Largesse. We’d be among the first to admit that Russia probably bit off more than it could chew. That’s just what Russia does. Lest we forget, this was a country that just two decades ago could put men in space but couldn’t build a decent car or toaster. Anyone who pays the slightest attention to history should remember that Russia loves doing things big, so there really is no excuse for being surprised that they have gone over the top in outfitting the games.
Yet let’s also recognize that the entire Olympics enterprise is appalling from a socio-economic perspective. Rather than have a single, international facility that gets used over and over again, it taps a new municipal victim every two years, getting them to dump huge resources into constructing facilities that will never pay for themselves or see sufficient use after the games are over. Few hosts get it right (see Vancouver). And most (remember the buildup to Athens and China) get loads of flak for overextending themselves and trying to prove themselves.
Not to excuse Tsar Vladimir’s Great Boondoggle, but let’s also recognize that everything you see at the Sochi games did not exist five years ago. This games is rather unique in that it was a greenfield construction project. Everything had to be built from scratch. And what most seasoned sports reporters (and athletes) on site there are saying is that the facilities are absolutely stunning.
The Coastal Cluster of stadiums was marshland and farmland (don’t get us started about the locals who were evicted or the environmental costs of the road building) before the building started, with just a few two-lane roads through the sleepy towns. And best estimates are that, of the $50 billion spent on the games, just $6 billion went for the building of the stadiums; the rest went for infrastructure, like roads and rail lines and 19,000 new hotel rooms (some of which apparently still need a bit of wiring done).
Sure, there are some hilarious shortcomings, but seriously, could you, in just five years, build a fully functioning Olympic Megalopolis where there ought not to be one? I didn’t think so.
The Rocky and Bullwinkle Legacy. As the New York Times reported a while back, Russians are still the go-to bad guys for Americans (and surely for much of the western world). The Cold War may be over, but we do love our archetypes and we love to seek out a Boris Badenov (or a Natasha) wherever possible. (Not surprisingly, the Ugly American is almost as prevalent in Russian pop culture.) This despite the fact that our mothers taught us (or should have), that tearing someone else down does not us you look better; it just makes us look petty.
Add to this the influence of new media, where snarkiness and gotcha pseudo-journalism is equated with eyeballs, and of course the focus is going to be on the negative. Unfortunately, this has even bled over into some rather appalling jingo-journalism by NBC, the monopolistic US outlet for Olympic coverage. Their chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, has been producing some of the most ridiculous and superficial reportage on Russia we’ve seen in years. And what did NBC air in its first Russo-cultural piece on Wednesday night (after months of traveling across all of Mother Russia)? You guessed it, a sappy piece about matryoshka dolls (which the reporter neglected to mention were kinda sorta ripped off from Japan).
We expected superficial, jingoistic coverage, but even we have been amazed at how far it has gone.
Stop Killing Puppies. The latest news, that the city of Sochi has ordered the killing of stray dogs (many probably the result of their owners being evicted), has animal rights activists in an uproar. And rightly so. It’s appalling.
Russia’s municipal leaders do not have a strong track record for politically correct or well-thought-out decisions. When you are answerable to the person who appointed you, rather than to voters, you tend to make rather heavy handed, “damn the torpedoes” sorts of decisions. Like shooting stray dogs with poisoned darts rather than taking the time to remove them humanely to a shelter facility and looking for families to adopt them.
But, as the biblical adage has it, “First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend's eye.” Each year in the US we “euthanize” 2.7 million dogs, or one every 11 seconds. Appalling.
Should we really be pointing an accusing finger? Or should we be asking, “what can we do to help?”
The Olympics are a global spectacle in every sense of the word. They truly bring out the best and worst in us. Let’s just hope that once the games actually get underway tonight that people can stop focusing on ridiculous toilet installations and turn their attention to the amazing talents and skills of the athletes who have worked so hard to get to this place.
Oh, one thing: NBC, can you please call in a linguistic consultant to help Bob Costas et al with pronunciation of Russian names? It’s really setting my teeth on edge to hear your commentators call the mountain facility kraz-nigh pole-nuh.
But maybe I’m being a bit too critical.
Let the games begin. Please?
p.s. In case you missed it, the Russian pairs skaters, Trankov and Volosozhar (say that five times fast), were absolutely aMAzing in last night's opening round of the new team ice skating competition! Clearly the pair felt they needed to perform their best after we put them on the cover of Russian Life's Olympic Issue. Glad we could help.
Russian Life is a 29-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567