Tony Bucci puts the Sochi Games in context.
Now that the 22nd Winter Olympic Games are well underway and spectators worldwide continue to sharpen their gaze upon its Russian host city, it has become increasingly difficult for passive viewers to ignore the harsh criticism being hurled at Sochi from Western audiences. Stories of Sochi’s treatment of stray animals, the toxicity of its tap water, the structural integrity of its septic system, and the city’s overall preparedness among many other inconveniences have culminated in the twitter handle and accompanying hashtag #SochiProblems. Here, Western audiences have been able to air grievances, absolutely appalled at such poor conditions in a percievably industrialized nation. This sort of flash-in-the-pan outrage suggests that events that receive international interest in turn invite international criticism, especially when key players, namely the United States and Russia, continue to be economic, political, and historical rivals. Although the backlash might be deemed excessive by 21st century screen tappers, the Olympic Games have long been used as a smokescreen by generations of government officials and journalists eager to cloak latent cultural insensitivities and their own leering domestic issues in a shroud of ceremony, celebration, and friendly competition. Historically speaking, those most willing to spend are the best able to mask their own ugliness from an easily distracted world.
The Winter Olympic Games were held for the first time in Chamonix, France in 1924, twenty eight years after Athens brought back the Modern Olympic Games; however, it was not until the 1930s that “Olympic Villages” were built as part of the accommodations. The Olympic Village, now a staple proviso for the housing and training of athletes in or near the host city, began as cabins erected during the French Games in 1924 but quickly grew to include kitchens, dining rooms, and even training facilities as the years went on. By the following decade, the Olympics were one of few international events that did not concern political council, war, or trade, leading policymakers to spend more and more time and money making absolutely sure that their implementation illustrated the wealth and organization of the host country.
For the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Adolf Hitler’s government built an Olympic Stadium and four subsidiary stadiums that sat nearly 150,000 people, male and female dormitories, and a variety of training facilities and assembly halls. Its Olympic village provided a temporary restaurant, in-door swimming pools, steam baths, a theatre, and an assembly room that could seat 5,000 occupants and was built in only a few weeks by a “small army of carpenters.” If Barclays Arena in Brooklyn, New York, which seats a mere 18,000 during basketball games, was built as part of a $4.9 Billion construction project in the 21st Century, imagine what this cost Germany at a time when the rest of the world was being hit hardest by the Great Depression. This begs the question: why go through all the trouble? To downplay the anti-semitism, hardline nationalism, and increasingly volatile militarism of the National Socialists, and so that the German Games would go down in history for their organized transportation networks, their system for quickly and easily spreading information over long distances, and the six Gold and Silver Medals Germany earned. In the words of New York Times reporter Frederick T. Berchall, the Third Reich had done “pretty close to a perfect job.” Not bad for one of the most evil administrations in world history.
In this way, the German Olympics could be used as an example of how a country might “turn the games into a dazzling propaganda success”, as legendary Times writer William L. Shirer said. “Visitors from all over the world… were impressed by what they saw: a friendly, consented people with enthusiasm for their leader and his brutal totalitarian state.”
But what about when countries are unable or ill-equipped to prepare for such a gathering of literate and critical international jetsetters? What happens when topography, climate, labor shortages, or aging infrastructure challenges a host city?
In the late 1970s, The United States Department of Commerce put up $57 million of economic development funds toward the projected $100 million budget that fast became $150 million for the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York. What visitors and Olympiads got for that investment were congested access roads and confusing new traffic routes, events that were miles outside of the city, long waits for buses in the freezing cold, expensive food and accommodations ($1 cups of coffee and $2 hot dogs! For shame!), a lack of available parking, and being forced to watch unpopular games in order to catch a “glamour” event like hockey. By April of 1980, a New York Senate Committee had decided that highway congestion and other problems were a result of “mismanagement and a greater interest in reducing costs than in having an effective system.” At the time, Lake Placid, an American city in one of the most important states in the nation, seemed like it had missed a shootout in overtime.
By the 1990s, the process of even obtaining the right to hold the Olympic Games was corrupted by corporate interest and private money. “The bidding process has become a sort of neurotic mating ritual in which bid cities, eager to please [I.O.C.] members, tend to spend money like drunken sailors,” amounting to $14 million in private dollars simply attempting to solidify a Salt Lake City Olympics in 1998 and 2002. In order for the 2004 Games to be held in Athens, the Greeks felt they needed to add a new airport, update their subway system, and add a “ring road,” that would decrease the city’s downtown traffic by 250,000 cars a day – to even be considered. The Olympic Games are big business, which means if you want to play, you have to pay.
The 2006 Olympic Games in Turin, Italy was bashed in the American media for simply not attracting enough of a Western viewership. Television shows like American Idol overshadowed the Turin games and led NBC, who provided full coverage while the games took place, to color the events as less attended and enthusiastic than prior years. The only spectators credited with creating an energetic and impassioned atmosphere where the Dutch who, encouraged by alcohol and the music of the “Little Beer” band, were described as rooting for every speed skater that competed regardless of affiliation or country of origin. Speaking of controlled substances, the Turin games also marked a 71% increase in drug testing among Olympic Athletes. During the games duration, Austrian biathletes and cross-country skiers were involved in an abortive Italian drug raid and Olga Pyleva of Russia was stripped of her silver medal after testing positive for a banned stimulant.
The Chinese government came under fire by American media in the years preceding the 2008 Summer Olympics for preventing freedom of speech among academics, news sources, writers, and protest groups with the very real threat of legal prosecution by an “impartial legal system” that could include beatings at the hands of law enforcement officials. The city of Beijing also caught flack for announcing its plan to stage a “Green Olympics” despite infamously high levels of smog and air pollution, which included alternate day driving restrictions and subjecting local businesses to environmental impact reviews. Cities up to 90 miles outside of Beijing, including Tianjin and Tangshan, suspended operations at more than 267 businesses in order to quickly improve air quality and visibility before the Games began. Despite their best efforts however, the New York Times described the entire Beijing program as “authoritarian image management.”
In reacting to the 2014 Olympic proceedings, American and European journalists may have expected a Potemkin City where Sochi had once been. Maybe, Mark Connelly of Canada’s CBC network expected the fully accommodated, newly erected, and finely polished apartment foyers of authoritarian governments long gone by when he encountered a hallway filled with metal coat-hangers and torn plastic-wrap. Perhaps, Harry Reekie of CNN has never arrived in advance of a reservation and been made to wait while his room was prepared, lobby or no lobby. Likely, Stacy St. Clair of the Chicago Tribune has never heard the expression “don’t drink the water” in reference to international travel to foreign countries. But most importantly, those alarmed by these #FirstWorldProblems must have forgotten that people are and will continue to be much more interested in other’s mistakes than they are in their successes, and will be drawn to “mud and rubble” only if they can’t be mesmerized by rhinestones and glitter. People remember Nancy Kerrigan twenty years later because she was clubbed in the knee, not because she was a silver and bronze medalist. People in Lake Placid still dwell on their Olympic Games because they breathed life into a small resort town hidden in the Adirondack Mountains, not because they went off without a hitch. Besides, don’t the five Olympic Rings look better as four Olympic Rings and snowflake?
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Photo by Nick Webb/Flickr