As the cleanup in Sochi continues this week, the impending disaster that had been so frequently discussed before the event has been averted. There wasn’t a terrorist attack, the facilities were finished, and, by and large, everything ran smoothly — so much smoother than we wanted.
In the lead-up to the Winter Games in Sochi, the negative press surrounding the games was staggering. Everything ranging from Russian legislation against homosexuality, to the mismanagement of funds and allegations of corruption. Even the poor stray dogs of Sochi made headlines, with the discovery of a Russian plan to eliminate the feral population before the arrival of hundreds of thousands of tourists, many with a penchant for petting animals on the streets without a second thought to the possible health risks the animals carry. Following the coverage closely, I started to believe that we wanted something bad to happen.
To our delight, we whetted our palate with proof of the imminent disaster as the press arrived in Sochi. Photos and comments began pouring out from the press about the “conditions” in Sochi. “Sochi Disaster” started trending on Twitter. Looking closer at many of the “issues,” things like not being able to flush toilet paper or the tap water being undrinkable aren’t really characteristics of a lack of preparation or any form of disaster, but conditions that exist in most developing nations. It’s frankly embarrassing that these minor peccadillos captured the imagination of the Western public. A great deal of the world’s population lives in conditions similar to these. I suppose Russia should offer a heartfelt apology to the journalists, because the hotels in Sochi weren’t, in fact, the Hilton in London or the Marriott in New York City. I’m sorry that Russia wasn’t as nice as Vancouver in 2010 or Turin before that. But things are looking up! South Korea is next and perhaps they are developed enough for the press.
But unlike similar or worse conditions that were rampant at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa (which caused an influx of more than 40,000 prostitutes in the country), Russia is somehow held responsible for being different. Even as the ice has all but melted from the Cold War, the West still takes an adversarial approach to Russia. Putin has, without a doubt, tyrannical tendencies and his regime should be open to criticism, but belittling Sochi for some non-functional toilets or broken curtains is nothing but Western elitism. We live in a world with lingering Cold War prejudices, a world in which the average American still views the average Russian as their backwards rival.
Yet as the American media throws allegations of corruption on Russian officials in Sochi, they seemed to have conveniently forgotten the allegations of bribery that accompanied the Winter Games in Salt Lake City in 2002. So severe were those offenses that several members of the Olympic International Committee, the governing body of the Olympics, were forced to resign. Good thing Mitt Romney was there save the day.
We are also quick to forget our own sordid history with homosexuality. Michigan and 16 other states still have a law banning sodomy. It took a Supreme Court case in 2003 to overturn these laws. While no longer enforceable, these laws remain on the books in these states, and little effort is being made to change or amend them. The laws that caused such protest in Russia are arguably less severe than the law Michigan lawmakers crafted.
There’s an old line of jokes that go something like “In Russia, car drives you!” focusing on the overall backwardness of the nation. Interestingly, a minor amendment could make this remark applicable for the United States. “In the United States, media drives you!” We listen to the media and it drives our perception on what will or should happen. The Western media’s complaints are shameful and show how spoiled and disconnected we really are. The disaster the media wanted, that it marketed so fiercely to the public, didn’t happen. I guess there’s some truth in one of these jokes. Although driverless cars may be right around the corner.
Matthew Manning is a graduate student in the School of Public Policy.