By now you’ve probably heard about the less-than-desirable conditions being faced by athletes, journalists and fans in the Russian city of Sochi, where the Winter Olympics are being held.
Tweets about “dangerous face water,” a shortage of rooms, the repeated sounding of fire alarms and, generally, a “dirty” environment have flooded the Intersphere. Shaun White pulled out of slopestyle because he — and other athletes — called the course too dangerous. A single malfunctioning automated snowflake/Olympic ring made headlines. Yellow tap water. Impoverished locals. Sticky — and thin — bathroom doors.
Russia is under the microscope, and looking beyond the arenas and mountain courses themselves, the world seems less than impressed.
Actually, strike that last sentence. It should say: “Sochi is under the microscope (not Moscow or St. Petersburg)… and the West (not the world) is less than impressed.”
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It’s easy to laugh at the conditions in Sochi. We can point out the seeming absurdity of not-crystal-clear water, the technological amateurism of a failed Olympic ring and the pathetic nature of some of the accommodations.
But then we are only revealing our own ignorance and our own arrogance.
Poor water is a daily reality for billions around the globe. Breaking gadgetry is omnipresent — even in the U.S. (remember the 2013 Super Bowl blackout?). And small, spare living conditions are a fact of life for many, even in westernized Europe.
We’ve rightfully been made aware that our tendency to scoff at these realities is as embarrassing for the West as it is for Russia, if not more. It demonstrates our own neglect about what life is really like for the rest of the world, for those outside our first-world bubble.
Of course, of course, there’s nothing wrong with having and desiring nice things — though even this only to a point. And Russia — a perpetual rival of the West: easy to mock, easy to scorn — is perhaps due some level of embarrassment that rooms where not ready and poverty is simply hid behind barriers.
But we should be ashamed of ourselves if we think the realities of Sochi are below us. This is real life. And, frankly, Sochi is still better off than much of the world.
I can’t imagine what people will say when the World Cup stages matches in the jungles of the Amazon this summer, or in Qatar in 2022. Everywhere, even in the West, great luxury mingles with great poverty.
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And, more hidden than Sochi’s sometimes third-world shadows, is the fact that seems completely neglected thus far.
The 2014 Winter Games are being staged in a very live conflict zone.
Don’t we know what happens in the Causcasus? Don’t we know there is a war between Islamists and Putin’s security forces? Don’t we know the violence, terrorism, oppression and corruption that overshadows the region?
Unfortunately, most of us don’t.
Even as we’ve become gleefully aware of hostel-like conditions in Sochi, we’ve been left blinded to the ongoing war for which Sochi has now become a target.
Who among the westerners glued to television sets to watch moguls and curling can say a thing about Volgograd? Dagestan? Even Chechnya?
Sochi is not Turin or Salt Lake City. It is definitely not Vancouver. The mountains are there, but the presence of armed resistance, the legitimate threat of terrorism from nearby provincial hubs is something new to viewers.
Interestingly, the West is painfully aware of discriminatory laws against the LGBT community in Russia — even to the point of threatening boycott — but still painfully unaware of the other tragedies of the Olympic environment. Perhaps we feel more connected, more betrayed on the issue of LGBT rights. But why should we not feel equally connected and betrayed about the myriad other brands of poverty, corruption and violence rampant in the North Caucasus?
The broad swathe of land between the Black Sea and the Caspian is home to literal armies, both armed and ever-plotting to destroy the other. And all the while, we are plopping down on sofas to watch Shaun White’s halfpipe aerials and giggle about the kind of Yelp reviews we would give Sochi hotels.
It’s not that Sochi is a bad venue for the Games because it is in a war zone; it is that many spectators are a numb audience to this fact.
So enjoy the Olympics. Really. But let’s not forget that when the last medals are awarded and all those one-star suites are left deserted, there will still be poverty in Sochi, and there will still be war in the Caucasus.