Go for the Gold

In another lifetime, I lived abroad. Abroad makes the actual living sound fancy, as if I were dining out in Paris or ice fishing in Ontario. Although everywhere I lived usually had running water, I often spent time in places that did not, or where the electricity only ran for a few hours a day, or where toilets were more of a suggestion. I also lived in places where everything appeared to run and work and thrive but when you dug around the edge, it wasn’t what you imagine a big, cosmopolitan city to be. Almost first-world, over the developed line but still dragging bits and pieces behind. Not what we assume the States to be, although frankly, there are places here that don’t meet those qualifications.

I left behind a wedge of my heart when I lived in Brazil, a glorious, richly-textured, brilliant, thriving nation. In one small town, there was a narrow alleyway, the walls of which were coated in layers upon layers of chewing gum. I left a piece of white gum near the middle (though I wished it were more vibrant, a tropical blue, perhaps). I don’t remember the town, there was no placard on the street, the alley wasn’t in a guidebook, it wasn’t as developed as where I live now but had I asked the occupants, they would have assured me that their town, maybe, but certainly their country, was developed, first-world almost, just like any other rich nation. I say all that to say this, place doesn’t have to be developed to be worthwhile, to be enriching, to be deserving.

The coverage of the Olympic preparation in Sochi is chilling. The criticism of the accommodations by American journalists borders on cruel. The more scathing reports I read about the inadequacy of the hotels, the hue of the water, the scrambling of staff, the offensive decorations in the rooms, the list goes on, the more I worry for Rio in 2016. Already the articles have started about the hotels that haven’t been built, the transportation snarl that can’t be undone, and the crime that absolute poverty drives down the hill and onto the city streets.

The Olympics are huge and the required infrastructure is vast. When a country fails to deliver on those counts, of course we are critical. But is it right to only hold the Olympics in countries that can afford to host packs of journalists from every major world network in gorgeous, well-appointed hotels, while also providing perfect transportation solutions and accommodations for the athletes in an unimpeachably fashionable environments? So much of harshest criticism is directed at things that are par for the course in many places that are not here.

I’m glad RR isn’t old enough to buy into the Sochi-trampling*. Perhaps we can rethink our expectations for the games and hold them instead in a way that allows some of the income and glory to spread to nations that don’t have the capacity to be such shining beacons of first-worldness. Perhaps it’s okay to send one journalist per network instead of 20. Perhaps it’s okay to hold different events in different places at different times. Perhaps I’m an Olympics heretic. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been on the wrong side of popularity.


*Of course, we want, we require, safety at any high profile event. Further, any criticism on that front is separate from whining about twin beds in hotel rooms. Come on. It’s a twin bed. Sleep in it.

18 Responses

  1. I think I’d be more of your thinking on this one if these Olympics didn’t in fact represent a HUGE amount of money spent — vastly more than on previous Games, even in rich countries — apparently not reflected in what has been built. The story of the people forced to relocate and promised parks and tourist attractions (and thereby money) and instead given the frame of a museum, hung with a painted tarp to look like that tourist attraction grosses me out. (Maybe because it also reminds me the most of the US — the new Yankee stadium crap, for instance.) There is plenty of money in Russia, and it isn’t going to the Olympics or the people who most need it. I know corruption is a complicated issue, but it’s hard for me to feel very bad for the boosters of these particular games, whom I imagine are doing pretty well.

    • Absolutely. It’s horrifying to think of money poured into pockets or, I hope, so grossly mismanaged that the promise of beauty is unfulfilled. I imagine Sochi will join a long line of places where Olympic stadiums, pools, and hotels become under/un-utilized after the event because of terrible planning and implementation.

      I wish I’d had the opportunity to live in Russia because I feel like my own experiences in Africa can’t quite compare enough to do my thoughts on first world privilege justice. There are places in Africa where you COULD hold Olympic events, but there would be significant adjustments in expectations from developed nations. And I don’t think we can ever get to that point when press coverage dominates in areas like twin beds instead of the real issues you mention.

  2. I agree that we can’t expect the same in other countries. But it is not unreasonable to expect running water, and when it does run, that the water is safe to touch, much less drink. Or that the roof is on a building, and that your door locks. Russia is not a 3rd world country. They spent over 50 billion to not actually finish. They knew what they were getting into when they applied for the Olympics. I think it’s completely valid to criticize the accommodations. To criticize the indiscriminate culling of stray dogs. To criticize their claims that no gay people live in Sochi. I don’t feel people are bashing, but pointing out real issues. A twin bed? That’s minor, but likely just adds to the frustration they are dealing with. They’ll live with a twin bed, but drink the water and they might not live.

    I’m actually not anti Russia either. I studied Russian in college and at work. I find it an interesting culture and usually enjoy the Russians I work with. This makes me wonder how much of that money lined the pockets of the influential, rather than ensuring the games were ready to go on, and everyone had a safe place to stay.

    • That’s a thoughtful comment and as you point out, there are very real issues outside of hotel room furnishings that plague this particular olympics. I’m as guilty as the journalists, in a way, for glossing over the larger issues. The issues of corruption and human (and animal!) rights are so deeply woven into the conversation I can’t begin to speak about articulately. Thank you for adding it!

      I find the articles water comments particularly frustrating. Beautiful water is not a requirement. Access to potable water is, even if it doesn’t come out of your faucet. It’s comments like (paraphrased) “I washed my face with Evian, like a Kardashian” that are thoughtless, especially given that this is may be the norm for the area, and detracts from the purpose of the event. It also rules out a huge part of the world from ever having the opportunity to take part in hosting an event like this. We are incredibly privileged to have access to water from a faucet that we can drink and brush our teeth with but there are lots of places that rely on distillation and other methods to make water safe. It’s unreasonable to expect crystal clear, potable water from a faucet as a rule. Hell, MY water isn’t even clear most days.

      • That particular comment was made by the same person who was told by the desk at the hotel not to even wash their face with the water because there was dangerous stuff in it. So that was her tongue in cheek response to a messed up situation.

        And I disagree. Your water should be clean and clear coming out of the faucet. If it isn’t, something is wrong. That’s the job of any water system. Have you had your water checked to figure out why it isn’t clear? I’ve never lived where it wasn’t clear. That includes the middle of nowhere desert in California, big cities like Houston and Austin, and well water back home in Wisconsin. Though, my time in Abu Dhabi taught me you can’t assume that clean looking water is safe to drink. They gave us bottled and filtered water every day in brand new dorms because they couldn’t consistently say the water would be safe from pathogens.

      • I thought the comment from the desk staff was really interesting – if true, I hope they close the hotel. I think it’s just as likely she was trying to think of the best way to warn the press off of getting the water into her mouth. Sadly, google didn’t turn up any context. Maybe we’ll get more. Our water here is fine although the color varies. I know. I was weirded out the first time it turned up a little brown – the last time I saw water that color in my shower was from a cistern in Mozambique but it turns out it’s fine!

  3. The only tweet I saw that I wanted to sit the person in question down and speak with them was one about not flushing tp down the toilet. Having only been out of the country once, I don’t know if it’s a standard everywhere, but certainly, in Costa Rica, that was a common sight. From what I gather from other people that have traveled more extensively than me, being able to flush tp is an American luxury.

    Some of the issues are quite valid. But that one in particular was just bratty.

  4. You know, I really appreciate your perspective. I’m glad I read this tonight. I haven’t really heard/read enough about any of it to have formed an opinion already, but I love that I can have this pinging around inside my head when it’s all over the news in the morning.

    • This morning’s piece of work (on one site known for snark) was all of the menu mistakes – instead of ‘assortment’, it has been abbreviated to ‘ass’. I can’t wait until we see more about the athletes.

  5. You make some really good points here, and I appreciate you bringing them up.

    I think the thing that bugs me is that I kind of feel like for 50 BILLION DOLLARS they should have been able to come up with manhole covers, you know? I’m starting to wonder if the entire thing about Russia hosting was just an elaborate scam so that Putin could funnel mind-blowing amounts of money into the pockets of his friends. But I’m a cynic.

    Also, my parents do the “tp in the trash can” thing, because their pipes are apparently made out of compressed cardboard, for some inexplicable reason. It’s not the end of the world. Sometimes I don’t get people.

    • I know. It’s manhole covers. That seems like something that your average facilities guy would comment on…like, “huh. guess we better cover that up. If not for others’ safety, at least so I don’t fall in.” I will remark that I have seen and continue to see (for shame) open manholes on my route to and from work. That said, the state of VIrginia hasn’t blown 50 billion on double bathrooms of late, so I forgive them.

      On Thu, Feb 6, 2014 at 11:00 PM, Counting Chickens wrote:


  6. I’m late to the party on this comment thread, but a friend – knowing my complicated love of Russia – sent me this article:


    • Thank you for sharing this – it captured my thoughts far better than I did (or even could have).

      On Wed, Feb 12, 2014 at 10:28 AM, Counting Chickens wrote:


    • That’s a great article. I’ve noticed the normal coverage on NBC has been showing different sides of Russia, painting it in a much better light.

      I think that most people aren’t looking at this as a Russian people problem, but a Russian government problem. To mismanage something that EVERYONE would see…what were they thinking? That no one would notice? They know the internet exists right? I suspect some of these underpaid workers screwed things up on purpose to get the attention of the world. And while there are plenty of things that aren’t a big deal in that they don’t risk safety, having the courses unsafe and not ready is a big safety issue.

      I really hope that Rio learns from this. I think it’s a bit easier for the summer olympics because you aren’t trying to keep snow and ice in good condition, but the summer olympics are so much bigger.

      Perhaps we should just take the truly ignorant stuff with a grain of salt and ignore it. And then, the stuff that matters, see if anything can be done. To watch our tone when we talk about things so it isn’t us making fun of Russians. Or making fun of anyone. We can’t control others who want attention, but we can choose how we act.

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