In the days leading up to the Winter Olympics, the media's attention was not on alpine skiing or pairs skating. It was on Russia and, specifically, how unprepared the country was to host the Games: In Sochi, hotels were missing entire lobbies, toilets couldn't flush toilet paper, yellow-colored water flowed from sinks.
All this seemed too amusing not to share. "2014 Sochi Winter Olympics plagued by #SochiProblems (and it's hilarious)," announced one Denver Post headline. "Journalists at Sochi are live-tweeting their hilarious and gross hotel experiences," The Washington Post declared. BuzzFeed went all out with "Photographic Proof That Sochi Is A Godforsaken Hellscape Right Now."
Now, a week after an animatronic snowflake failed to become an Olympic ring during the opening ceremony, reports of these "only in Russia" moments have all but disappeared. Coverage has shifted to the actual Games — the favorites, the wipeouts, the medal counts — and occasionally Bob Costas's lingering pink eye. Even @Sochiproblems, which has nearly 100,000 more followers than the Games' official Twitter account, is tweeting about the competitions.
It's almost as if news organizations remembered why they sent reporters to Sochi in the first place — to cover the Olympics, not to poke fun at the host city. Or maybe it's because, snowflake glitches and half-pipe complaints aside, the Sochi Games are generally going off without a hitch. No train derailments, no accidents, no serious #sochiproblems. Waiting for Sochi to fail was a lost cause.
Russia is not the one who looks bad because of Sochi. It's the media.
"It does seem like the Western press is on the hunt for evidence of how inept and hilarious the Russians are," The New Republic's Julia Ioffe wrote of the schadenfreude before she arrived in Sochi. "There does seem to be something mean-spirited in all of this, as if the Western press came hoping to encounter pillow shortages and rusty water."
The Western press sugarcoated Athens' trouble race against time to prepare in 2004, Ioffe pointed out, and slammed Mitt Romney for criticizing London's level of preparedness in 2012. This year, however, Sochi was a punchline. "Some of the comments and tweets have felt too much like the rich kid in class making fun of the one who can't afford good clothes," one reader wrote on Sarah Kaufman's recent PolicyMic story on the media feeding frenzy.
The Olympics are historically not all fun and games for host cities, as National Journal's Elahe Izadi explained recently. Athens ended up with crippling debt and a bunch of abandoned sports complexes. The air-pollution levels that China committed to cutting in Beijing rebounded after the 2008 Games ended. Readying Sochi has been a seven-year corruption-ridden, worker-rights-violating affair, and the people who live there year-round have become an afterthought. Not exactly joke material.
It's easy for traveling journalists to engage in this Sochifreude. For one, many of them don't understand Russian culture and rely instead on outdated stereotypes of how backwards life in Russia remains in the 21st century. For another, they get to fly back to their democratic home countries once the Games wrap up next week, where their hotels, toilets, and sinks are flawless, remember? And the cards were stacked against Sochi long before the first reporter landed on the Black Sea coast. According to a recent global survey by the Pew Research Center, a median of 36 percent of the publics in 38 nations express a favorable view of Russia. Meanwhile, 63 percent of the world's general publics hold a favorable view of the United States.
Life in Russia can truly be grueling, and it's far more than a joke. The problems visitors to Sochi briefly encounter make up the reality of daily life for Russia's 143 million people. For Russians, watching the international media jump on Sochi's bungled start has been painful and embarrassing. For them, "only in Russia" is always in Russia.