Sochi Olympics: Quit Complaining and Read Between the Lines

Source: Matthew Tichenor / Flickr

OPINION — The bathrooms are terrible, construction is shoddy or unfinished, the doorknob fell off, and have you seen the water? So said basically every journalist and athlete tweeting complaints from their dirty or oddly labeled hotel rooms — and to an extent, it’s hard not to sympathize, at least with the athletes. This is a major moment in their careers: They need to be at their best, and any extra stress is probably not helpful considering the heavy expectations they’re already tasked with. Complaining or joking about the conditions is a method of stress relief, perhaps.

Having said that, it comes across as rude to the host country — the 2014 Winter Olympics are currently being held in Sochi, Russia — and with social media being what it is, everyone is listening. It’s the difference between harmless venting in private and complaints broadcast on a worldwide, public stage. The disparaging comments from journalists are considerably more disappointing.

Complaints like the ones mentioned above occupy a big part of the conversation about Sochi, and the spotlight would be far more useful turned elsewhere. Numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, have reported that Russian officials forced residents out in order to create accommodations for the games. People who lost their homes to make way for Olympic venues are unlikely to see the same humor in a broken curtain and dirty hotel room. Sometimes we need a reminder of the sentiment of collaboration and friendship behind the games, as well as the fact that everything is political, including — and especially — the Olympics.

Hosting the Olympics puts Russia under close scrutiny, as the games have done with other host countries in the past. The event has even had an effect on international relations and politics — take, for example, Russia’s role in the Ukrainian protests, which may have been lessened somewhat as the Sochi games geared up and the host nation was perhaps unwilling to draw global attention at such a sensitive time.

What is more deserving of our attention?

If focus isn’t given to the games, it should be placed on Russia’s anti-LGBTQ legislation, corruption, and the repression of journalists rather than on badly finished sidewalks and unfortunate plumbing situations. A lot of the commentary surrounding the games at present comes across as elitist and impolite, and ultimately lacks consideration of other less trivial issues.

Corruption is one topic that is under-examined. Visitors to Sochi could understandably argue that given the amount of money put into the event’s preparations, they should be able to expect a functioning doorknob or completed hotel. Russia spent approximately $51 billion on the games, according to the Associated Press, the most money spent on an Olympic Games to date despite the fact that winter events have fewer athletes to host than the summer contests.

Additionally, a 2012 Audit Chamber report found that the Sochi Games have gone about $500 million over reasonable costs for setup. Russian President Vladimir Putin waved those numbers away, saying, “The overall cost of the Olympics has been announced,” referring to a so-called official estimate that comes in closer to $6 billion than $50 billion — a suspect calculation at best.

Environmental destruction and worker exploitation come along with accusations of governmental mishandling, and those reports are deserving of notice amid the anecdotes of Olympic spirit. Part of the reason these accounts aren’t as loud as the complaints is that journalistic coverage from local reporters in Russia is heavily curtailed by government censorship and official repression, something that visiting journalists should have a more sympathetic ear for, and are in the position to give voice to.

“The majority of news outlets, particularly those controlled directly by the state, prefer to cover Sochi the way they would cover a deceased man: in a positive light or not at all,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists in a report on coverage surrounding the games.

Sochi humor: strengths and downfalls

It’s pertinent to explore how humor about Russia’s visible missteps detracts from those other issues. The criticism surrounding this humor is perhaps why the creator of @SochiProblems, a popular comedy Twitter feed, recently changed its bio to read: “Highlighting the problems … to bring you the solutions! for #Sochi2014 #Olympics2014 / us Canadians try to put a positive spin on everything Eh!”

The important question when it comes to this type of humor is twofold: Why is this funny, and what is the intended effect compared to the actual effect? The intent of this particular Twitter account may be to lightheartedly highlight existing problems, but for many, it seems less good natured than that: More like a contribution to a stream of amused finger-pointing at a foreign country’s inadequacy. Much of the comedy seems to share a simple desire to have a good guffaw at “those silly Russians.” 

Sometimes humor is rooted in ignorance or a lack of understanding. Often the butt of jokes aren’t just fumbled construction efforts but are instead infrastructural and living conditions that most Russians deal with every day. The “problems” could also be symptomatic of societal issues Russians are likely already fully aware of. The actual effect, in many cases, is that locals probably find visitors haughty. Making such a big deal of squatting toilets, which are the norm in many non-Western countries, reflects poorly on foreign guests.

As to what makes these jokes funny, one example springs to mind — the many tweets regarding elevator signs in Sochi. One reads: “Please Remember: Elevator is the equipment of increased danger!” On one hand, it’s something of a knee-jerk reaction to laugh at jumbled English. On the other, English may be the international language, but there is an unfortunate and often earned reputation that English speakers have for expecting their communication preferences to be catered to without reciprocating the effort. It’s a matter of cultural insensitivity. The second piece of humor to be unpacked from this simple tweet is the suggestion that an elevator is dangerous.

Perhaps it’s odd for a non-Russian, but according to an article in the New Yorker published in 2012, “Anywhere from an estimated hundred and twenty thousand to more than two hundred thousand people get stuck in a Moscow elevator each year.” They actually have “teams of specially-trained elevator rescue mechanics [who] roam the city day and night, freeing people.” The notice seen on Twitter is probably a polite warning that in Russia, it’s not unusual to have your day interrupted by an elevator breakdown, so if you’re in a rush, it’s better to play it safe.

Future of the Olympics

Going forward with the Olympics, there are only so many options for host nations. Limiting the hosting duties to more developed, wealthier countries and cities is basically the only way to ensure Western-style comforts. It is also the only way to avoid having to examine issues in countries with ongoing social problems. Some countries might scramble to hide flaws in the lead-up to the games — especially with the public scrutiny that’s suddenly focused on them with unusual ferocity — and subsequently exacerbate the issues in the process. This was the case with the Beijing Olympics in 2008, in which China sought cosmetic changes to social problems by sweeping its streets of homeless individuals and immigrants.

This is not exactly in keeping with the Olympic spirit of international cooperation and mutual respect. The games are an opportunity for all nations to compete and come together, and part of that involves the honor of hosting the event. Part of attending the Olympics, summer or winter, is adapting to international environs, as well as all the ups and downs that go with that. The media have power — social and otherwise — and the energy and efforts involved with reporting in host nations should be concentrated on human rights and curtailed freedoms, as well as celebrating athletes and sports.

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