The rumblings in the Western media about the Winter Olympics in Sochi began long before the opening ceremony’s gigantic bear holograms took permanent residence in our nightmares. They started sometime around Russia’s passing of anti-gay propaganda laws, leading a bunch of professional athletes – especially hockey players – to display Olympic-level question- dodging when asked how they felt about LGBTQ issues. A boycott was quickly dismissed, because, after all, the athletes had worked so hard, and the sponsors paid so much, and we couldn’t miss the Olympics for this!
Next came a laundry list of worries, including terrorist threats and, finally, about two weeks before athletes were scheduled to arrive, the fact that the Olympic Village wasn’t exactly finished yet. Despite assurances that all would be ready, media arrived in Sochi to hotels still under construction, unclean drinking water, missing shower curtains, roving crews sent to kill stray dogs, and on and on. You probably saw at least some of it: #SochiProblems quickly spread across the internet, with the assorted media tweeting every indignity they faced. What shocked Yahoo! Sports’ Greg Wyshynski the most, however, was that used toilet paper didn’t go into the toilet, but into a bin instead. How strange!
There were legitimate gripes to be had about Sochi’s Olympic Village – an event that has cost $51 billion should probably have clean drinking water, or decent plumbing – but a lot of the problems in Sochi were borne out of Western bias and expectations, and the coverage of the Olympics by many in the media has been filled with misunderstanding, thinly veiled contempt, and hypocrisy. Deadspin columnist Drew Magary, tongue firmly-in-cheek, called Russians people “you can make fun of […] without anyone getting mad!” Sadly, it’s become all too real: Russia’s problems have been a way for the West to feel better about itself, to pat itself on the back without addressing any of its own issues.
That’s right, during a gigantic collection of literally almost every nation in the world, somehow there should be not a peep of politics, somehow these games should exist independent of any political spirit, even as the athletes wear their nation’s flag on their chest and listen to their national anthem when they win a gold medal.
For a nation that prides itself on the idea of free speech, it was pretty fun to see NBC, as it showed the tape-delayed opening ceremony, cut out the only brave moment of the whole evening. During what is usually a staid speech celebrating the Olympics, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach subtly addressed Russia’s numerous human rights abuses and its anti-gay laws by stating that the Olympics promoted equality for everyone, and that, in the future, it would be possible “to live together under one roof in harmony, with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason […].” NBC hasn’t addressed why this was cut from its broadcast; the whole thing was cut down for time, and it’s somehow an accident that the only halfway bold political statement was axed from the broadcast. This is another display of the desire by many, especially broadcasters and advertisers, to remove politics from the Olympics. That’s right, during a gigantic collection of literally almost every nation in the world, somehow there should be not a peep of politics, somehow these games should exist independent of any political spirit, even as the athletes wear their nation’s flag on their chest and listen to their national anthem when they win a gold medal.
Perhaps most glaring is the American media’s harsh condemnation of Russia’s anti-gay laws. This criticism comes from the same place that, after football prospect Michael Sam came out as gay, allowed multiple pro football personnel men to anonymously comment that football wasn’t ready for an openly gay player, that his draft stock would fall, and that he would rip apart a locker room’s chemistry because of his sexuality. “But how will a gay athlete get through Sochi?” they wondered, while allowing people to hate Sam, while they watched as Arizona passed a law that allowed businesses to deny service to anyone based on religious belief (in effect, a business owner could deny service to a gay person due to religious beliefs), and Indiana coming perilously close to passing a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Is it as bad as Russia’s anti-gay laws? Probably not, but when you’re arguing over the degree of how bad you are at something, it’s hard to sit on the high horse.
The same can be said for criticism of Russia’s treatment of protestors, most visibly the arrests and beatings of members of the Pussy Riot band. North America would never have a justice system so corrupt, we say, as its prison-industrial complex grows, and, in places like Montreal, the right to protest is slowly eroded.
As for fear of terrorist attacks, the U.S. media seems to have completely forgotten the fact that the Atlanta games were bombed back in 1998; yet the threat on the Sochi games somehow reveals another Russian shortcoming.
Besides, what will we remember from these games? The social issues that arise every Olympic year eventually fade away in the consciousness. Whether it be the treatment of workers leading up to the game, laws that permit hate, the environmental impact (such as the Beijing controversies in 2008), the ridiculous amounts of money spent by the host nation or the public space wasted by little-used infrastructure (have you looked at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium lately?); these become secondary. The achievements of the athletes are talked about for years to come; the issues that arise from the collection of these athletes in one space are merely topical. After the games, we leave all those problems there.
This is not an attempt to hold up Russia as a paragon of the world that has been slandered by the West – what Russia has done, and is doing, is abhorrent in many ways, and criticism is warranted. But the sense running underneath aspects of the coverage of these games, the predilection to point the finger at Russia’s problems while ignoring our own, is a pernicious trend. Real change at home will take longer if we continue to externalize our issues and assure ourselves that, at the very least, it’s worse elsewhere.