Three days in to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, one thing is abundantly clear: no matter how hard the Russian organizers and the International Olympic Committee try to convince the world that the games should not be hijacked by politics, Vladimir Putin's $51 billion extravaganza will be remembered for almost anything but the figure-skating and ski jumps.
These Olympics, which still have another two weeks to run, have turned out to be a massive bonanza for journalists. The games that keep on giving offer up a never-ending array of themes to choose from, ranging from the deadly serious to the downright frivolous.
Journalists by habit hunt in packs, so many of the stories have repeated themselves. Blanket coverage began in late December following the two terror attacks in Volgograd in which 34 people were killed. Despite Volgograd being nearly 700 kilometers from Sochi, the press was quickly filled with apocalyptic scenarios of Black Widows carrying out a series of suicide bombings using chemical weapons.
The terror angle later gave way to a slew of reports on the environmental havoc that the massive building projects have wreaked on the Sochi-area suburbs and nature reserves, and then attention moved to the creative ways in which Russia's corrupt oligarchs have salted away untold billions in shady contracts.
All these, of course, are legitimate concerns, and it was important that the international media focus on them - as they were suppressed and failed to appear in the muzzled Russian press. As of course was the issue that seems to have exercised the western media more than any other, the Russian government's ultra-conservative suppression of LGBT rights, which have engendered an atmosphere of gay-bashing throughout Russia (though apparently not so much in Sochi itself where two gay clubs seem to operate without too much hindrance).
This allowed news organizations and search-engines to literally show their colors with website logos and mastheads altered to include the rainbow banner of gay-pride (one American-Jewish magazine even announced with great fanfare that it was boycotting the Sochi Olympics). What wasn't at all clear was how much gay activists in Russia actually wanted their predicament to become an Olympics-related issue. As Julia Ioffe, a Russia expert and senior editor at The New Republic noted in her perceptive blog on the Olympics, gays in Sochi are much more likely to be harassed right now by a foreign journalist hunting for copy than by a Putinist homophobe.
But none of these worthy issues received anything near the attention as the woeful situation of the media hotel at Sochi, as hordes of reporters descended on the town late last week in preparation of the opening ceremony. The absence of doorknobs, the color of the (non)drinking water or lack of it, the abundance of stray dogs in the hotel grounds and lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in its breakfast.
Of course nothing made more compelling viewing on social media than the bathrooms, the famous double-toilet cubicle, urinals not connected to the walls, bizarre rules against fishing and front-decking, and, horror of horrors, indictments against flushing the toilet-paper. Cue hundreds of lavatorial memes and hilarious accounts that totally overshadowed any other reports on the last-minute preparations, besides the story of the U.S. delegation's yoghurt which got stuck in customs. (Full disclosure - This writer is no better than other hacks and has produced many similar stories for this newspaper, besides a hotel horror-story. The one I stayed at in Sochi two weeks ago was perfectly adequate.)
There have been two types of backlash so far to the Sochi hotel scandal. The Russian organizers - in a rather ham-fisted response - tried to blame the western journalists of Russophobic bashing. One senior official only made things worse when he tried to claim that they had surveillance footage of a westerner intentionally wasting shower water, raising the suspicion that the bathrooms may lack piping but have CCTV. The other backlash came mainly over Twitter from the no-less bolshy community of journalists covering the Middle East huffing derisively that throwing your dirty paper in a bin is de rigueur in most of the world. One Beirut correspondent tried to get #whininghackinsochi trending but it had no chance against the immediately viral #SochiProblems.
There is a great deal of poetic justice in the way this obscenely expensive and repressive Olympics has become a target of ridicule. It certainly is better to have the world laughing at Putin than applauding his nationalistic ego-trip, as he no doubt intended when he furiously lobbied for Sochi to host the games seven years ago.
But there are much more serious issues here at stake, that seem to have slipped beneath the radar. The spotlight that has focused, thanks to the games, on the suppression of civil and minorities' rights and on the way a small band of cronies is squandering the national resources is important, of course. The critical coverage is certainly an improvement on the craven way in which the no-less repressive Chinese Communist Party was allowed to celebrate its Olympics in Beijing 2008.
But the lives of ordinary Russians and Chinese are paradise when compared to the living-hell of millions in Syria, where the civil war is creeping towards its three-year mark and the death toll nears 140 thousand.
While overseeing his Olympic dream, Putin has been isolating Syria, providing the Assad regime with effective diplomatic immunity, preventing international intervention (with the exception of Iranian advisors and Hezbollah fighters coming to Assad's aims and thousands of Jihadis who have taken over and tainted the rebels' cause) and ensuring the demise of Syria as a functioning nation-state. To preserve Russia's last ally in the Middle East and trip up any attempt by the west to alleviate the situation, Putin has become the co-signatory on the death-warrant of untold numbers of Syrians. On the eve of the games, as Putin was signing the traditional "Olympic truce" in Sochi calling for "long term world peace," his ambassador to the United Nations was blocking a Security Council resolution calling upon the Syrians to open up the besieged war-zones to humanitarian aid.
Reporters in Sochi may have to go next door to relieve themselves, but they can be assured of going home in one piece once the games are over. Meanwhile, most of Syria has become a no-go area for journalists, as families are relentlessly bombed, starved and tortured in Homs, Aleppo and Idlib and dozens of brave journalists who tried to tell their story won't come back or are still missing. All the so-called "world leaders" can be blamed for standing by while this has happened - but Putin has been Assad's enabler-in-chief. We shouldn't let the Sochi side-show divert that charge.
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