Is Western Media Being Fair on #Sochi2014?

With all the recent talk of #‎SochiProblems on Twitter — which are completely legitimate complaints and should be reported on — I still can’t help but feel as though there’s something a bit too gleeful about the way western media has been covering the run up to the games.

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I’ve laughed at the hilarious tweets from journalists discovering hotels without lobbies, toilets without dividing walls and doorknobs falling off in people’s hands as much as the next person has laughed — because yes, it’s funny, and yes, clearly the preparations have been hugely mismanaged. I’ve even put together a Twitter list with nearly 30 prominent journalists who are tweeting out their Sochi experiences, which you can follow here if you’re interested.

So it’s not the act of reporting on these things that’s the problem. It’s the sheer delight with which western media is receiving the news. In an article for Foreign Policy today, Elias Groll has summed it up well (and I’ve chopped up his story a little bit to give you the main points):

Western journalists have traveled to Russia in search of the country of their dreams, and, lo and behold, they have found it. This is the Russia of the Western imagination: Corrupt, hollow, and dysfunctional. Sadly, the initial reports out of Sochi indicate that Olympic Games are going to be covered in utterly predictable fashion: as a confirmation of everything terrible the West thinks about Russia.

Is there some truth to the notion that Sochi was largely constructed as a vanity project — and, yes, a Potemkin village — to please Tsar Putin? Certainly. But the metaphor will be deployed with such laziness as to be meaningless. Here’s the takeaway from the Toronto Star’s piece comparing Sochi to a Potemkin village: “It feels like a place that is desperate to impress but just can’t quite get the details right, no matter that $51 billion was somehow spread around to make it happen.”

The notion that Sochi is “desperate to impress” is particularly hilarious. Isn’t that the sole purpose of hosting the Olympics?

It isn’t that these tropes about Russia don’t contain a shred of truth – the country certainly is corrupt, cold, and very fond of vodka – rather, it’s that Western coverage of Russia all too often presents the sad realities behind these stereotypes without any kind of nuance or imagination.

Putin often complains that Russia comes in for unfair treatment at the hands of the world media. Sochi will prove that he probably has a point  Elias Groll, Foreign Policy

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While things do seem to be looking rather messy in Sochi (although the picture above makes me want to book a flight right now), think back a little bit to the run up to the Summer Olympics in London in 2012.

We were told then too how disastrously the preparations had been going — stories of chronic construction delays, security concerns, worries that the city wouldn’t be able to handle the disruption — only we weren’t told gleefully, we were told with utmost concern. No one was feeling any peculiar delight in having to report those worries.

Back in 2012, even a vocal critic of the London Olympic project (Andrew Boff) said about London’s preparation:

“It’s the nature of any games — they look unfinished before you get there.”

The difference between Sochi and London may be that Sochi truly will not be ready before the opening ceremony — and if those Twitter reports are anything to go by, that’s an assumption we can make at least where accommodation is concerned. Although, while hotels with no lobbies and toilet stalls with no doors is definitely a stretch in terms of what acceptable accommodation should be, you’d have to wonder what kind of red carpet welcome western journalists were expecting.

They’re journalists, so they should be used to roughing it a bit. I’ve seen some tweeting out pictures of perfectly acceptable looking bedrooms and moaning about the “small” beds and whatnot — which does make me think a few might need a reality check.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the games have already begun (strangely this has happened before the opening ceremony) and reports from a number of athletes are that they feel “safe” and “comfortable” so far — much to the disappointment of many observers, it seems.

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There’s good and there’s bad. Clearly the ball has been dropped (pardon the pun) on a number of occasions in the run up to the games, security concerns are more worrying than usual — and I could get into a whole other post when it comes to the human rights issues that have been spotlighted because of all this, but that’s another story.

All I’m saying is, I want to hear the news, but I don’t want to feel like journalists are going out of their way to make the place look as horrific as possible.

The nature of the reporting and the whole affair in general has reminded me of something I read recently in a book I mentioned here before, A Russian Journal, by John Steinbeck. Published in 1948, and yet surprisingly still in its own way, so relevant to the fraught relationship between Russia and the western world today:

“We found that thousands of people were suffering from acute Moscowitis — a state which permits the belief of any absurdity and the shoving away of any facts. Eventually, of course, we found that the Russians are suffering from Washingtonitis, the same disease. We discovered that just as we are growing horns and tails on the Russians, so the Russians are growing horns and tails on us.”

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16 thoughts on “Is Western Media Being Fair on #Sochi2014?

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  6. Had an Olympic games been held in the segregated southern US or in South Africa under apartheid, you’d be seeing the same level of schadenfreude in the response to what are clear problems with how they were put together. No one giddily reported on the awful conditions in London in 2012 A) because they weren’t awful and B) because the UK hadn’t just enshrined homophobia in its national law.

    • Reporting, in my opinion, should never be ‘giddy’. As I said many times I absolutely agree that the human rights issues and organizational problems surrounding these games should be discussed and reported on, but it’s still my opinion that you should feel like a journalist is reporting fact in a straightforward manner rather than self-servingly seeking out the bad at the expense of any good.

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