Sochi Doesn’t Make Russia Look Bad. It Makes the Media Look Bad.

After a successful week of the Winter Olympics, earlier reports about Sochi’s unpreparedness seem mean-spirited and unnecessary.

National Journal
Feb. 14, 2014, 9:28 a.m.

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.

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