The Uncomfortable Truth About Sochi: Light the Torch, and All Is Forgiven

Workers prepare the Olympic cauldron ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics on Feb. 2, 2014 Photograph by Martin Rose/Getty Images

In July 2004, I went to Athens to do a story on the Greeks’ preparedness for the Summer Olympics. The biggest challenge wasn’t reporting in a foreign language or navigating the haughtiness of the International Olympic Committee. It was the word count. The assignment called for 3,000 words. The story needed three: They’re not ready.

Other than meeting with Greek politicians, who assured me that all was going according to plan and budget (!), my reporting involved walking around and looking at buildings, trains, and sporting venues. Most were in a state familiar to anyone who’s ever worked with a contractor. As soon as a guy came by to remove the tarps, paint the drywall, and sweep the floor, they’d be done. So there was no timetable for completion.

The state of the Olympic Stadium was more concerning. The exterior walls were still being patched, and any effort at landscaping had been abandoned in favor of green, spray-painted dirt. Inside, piles of uninstalled seats had become prime urinating spots for Athens’s notorious packs of stray dogs. The running track was laid, but the field was pocked with what appeared to be dozens of gopher mounds. I know because I sat on one and scribbled notes for a while before security wandered by. My only defense was the idiot shrug of the international traveler, which bought me all the time I required.

None of this means that the problems being chronicled by journalists in Sochi aren’t real. Hotels without potable water, hackers aligned with the Russian mob, stray dogs that disappear close to restaurants—it all sounds pretty grim. (Although there’s something reassuring about the enthusiasm with which these tales are told; nobody ups the ante on personal misery like a journalist abroad.)

The issue shouldn’t be that Sochi is chaotic—it’s that chaos is part of the Olympic transaction. The IOC is pretty open about the deal for host cities. If you’re willing to leverage your region’s economy, paint a terrorist’s target on your infrastructure, and assume impossible logistical challenges, the IOC won’t look too closely at the rubble behind the arenas, or whether the journalists have enough Wi-Fi, or whether your people are free. So long as you get the job done.

And Sochi is basically done. The task of the next two weeks is actually quite simple: Disappear. Olympic debt may one day break the regional economy (as it broke Greece’s) but the complaints of spectators and media, the rampant privileges given to IOC friends and sponsors, even Putin’s prejudice and spectacular corruption will fade as soon as the torch is lit. Sports are the only universal anesthetic, and the gimmicky offerings of the Winter Games are enough to numb the pain.

There are really just two things left for Sochi to tend to. Security is the first. These are reputed to be the securest games in history (and you can bet that every Olympics going forward will assume that title). Still, the thinking goes, it’s Russia, routine target of separatists and fanatics, even without the attraction of the Olympics. Keeping everyone alive is a massive concern, but before presuming Sochi is more vulnerable than its predecessors it’s worth recalling that the Greeks had their own domestic terror problems for years, and that the last Olympic terror incident occurred in the placid political climes of Atlanta in 1996. A city can do only so much.

Sochi’s last obligation is obvious. The Olympics are a televised sponsor opportunity masquerading as an athletic competition masquerading as a statement about the glory of humanity. So the power had better stay on. If it does, the wrap-up stories will need only three words: They were ready.

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