The Sochi Winter Olympics have problems...hundreds of thousands of them.
Complaints about hotels and Olympic venues in Russia are proliferating on social media, to the point where a Twitter feed called @SochiProblems has more followers than the official @sochi2014 account. Thousands more people have used the hashtag #SochiProblems on tweets poking fun at everything from over-the-top uniforms to the eye infection of sportscaster Bob Costas.
The maelstrom shows the growing power of Twitter and other social media to set the tone for a global event. The negative publicity also is creating headaches for Russia and President Vladimir Putin, who is kicking off the games today in the Black Sea coastal city. The country spent more than $45 billion staging the world’s most expensive Winter Olympics, building 14 venues and adding 19,000 hotel rooms.
Instead of taking in the grandeur of the games, Twitter users are complaining about makeshift shower curtains, broken sidewalks and a lack of hot water in their hotel rooms. The @SochiProblems account, which serves as a repository for the snark, has more than 218,000 followers. That compares with 143,000 for @sochi2014, which touts pictures of pristine ski slopes and gleaming venues for the competition.
“In the past, traditional media would focus on the games,” said Lo Shih-hung, an associate professor of communications at the National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan. “But with new media, all aspects of such global events are put under the spotlight.”
Unfinished buildings, debris-strewn hotel lobbies and packs of stray dogs are among the images getting posted online, spurring at least 70,000 posts in the past day under the #SochiProblems hashtag. Photos also show incomplete roads, glasses of yellow tap water, and bathrooms featuring multiple toilets without partitions. That’s undermining Putin’s efforts to promote Sochi as a world-class destination, Lo said.
“If hosting the Winter Olympics was a means to help improve Russia’s image or attract tourists, simple propaganda and advertisement isn’t proving to be enough,” he said.
In the seven years it took Russia to build the Olympic infrastructure, Twitter added more than 240 million users, making the service a popular outlet for unvarnished perspectives. That means the kind of barbs that used to just be shouted from living-room couches and barstools can be broadcast around the world in 140-character doses.
There have been been 2.8 million tweets about the Winter Olympics in the past 24 hours, according to Twitter data as of 4:30 p.m. in New York. Twitter is collaborating with NBC, which is broadcasting the games, to get people to tune into the Olympics by magnifying the conversation, according to a statement this week.
“Ohhhh it’s supposed to be the Olympic Games. Easy mistake; Sochi thought they were hosting the Hunger Games,” said one comment, referring to the dystopian Suzanne Collins novels about youths forced to fight to the death for the amusement of a TV audience.
Lowell Bailey, a U.S. competitor in the biathlon, used his account to highlight transit services that are supposed to come every five minutes, yet arrive “once a day, maybe twice.”
Costas, a veteran commentator for NBC Sports, got dragged into the online melee after he appeared on TV with uncharacteristic glasses, saying an eye infection prevented him from wearing contacts. The @SochiProblems account asked if it was the result of him drinking Sochi water.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, who was in charge of Olympic preparations, downplayed the criticism yesterday, telling state television Rossiya 24 that just 103 complaints have been filed by the 100,000 people already in the hotels.
“We don’t have any major problems,” Kozak told the network. “There are some minor complaints regarding hotels, but this is an insignificant percentage. Someone didn’t get his coffee in time, or personnel didn’t smile, or there was a water leakage somewhere.”
Not all Twitter comments about the Olympics have been negative. U.S. snowboarder Karly Piper Shorr posted, “Pretty cool up in the Olympic Athlete Village.”
Teammate Kelly Clark told followers, “Sochi...so far...Sooo Good.”
In China, host of the 2008 summer Olympic Games, Internet users have joined the raft of teasing, taking to the nation’s most popular Twitter-like service, Sina Corp.’s Weibo.
“Too many things to ridicule...can’t even finish...The battle nation being so cheap, does Putin know?” according to a message by a newspaper owned by the Hangzhou Daily Press Group.