Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Just How Bad Is Sochi Right Now?

There have been complaints about Sochi's facilities, venues, and tourist safety for weeks. But that's nothing compared to the real stuff...

(*Originally published on White Cover Magazine)

Here’s the problem.

Everyone’s talking about Sochi. It’s mostly negative. But nobody’s really there… including me. All I have to go on are the testimonials of a few privileged – well, maybe not, if you’ve seen the photos or heard the tales – journalists, jet set super fans, and whoever else would have locked down a two-week trip to what Russians call the Russian Mediterranean, which is a line similar to calling somewhere in Saskatoon the Paris of the Prairies.

That’s not meant to be a shot to Saskatchewan or to Sochi. But a city in the middle of miles of wheat is not Paris, and this year’s Olympic host ain’t the French Riviera.

But I have no idea what it’s really like and – worse – I have no idea what it’s supposed to be like.

I did work for VANOC during the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, so maybe I have some idea of what it takes or what the finished product could be. In Vancouver, I saw every item that existed and was set-up behind the scenes at Richmond’s Olympic Oval, and it wasn’t that impressive to me, either. Was it because anyone at VANOC did a poor job? Hell no. But when you work around construction sites and pallet jacks and sawdust for three months, you’re never moved by the final product. You’ve seen the labor pains. No matter how beautiful that baby is, you will never forget the labor. Especially when the baby isn’t yours – when you’re just an observer in the room, fetching things for the doctor and trying to keep fluid off your blue, sanitary-smelling gown.

You all saw gold medals, high-def TV screens, and an overflowing Granville Street. I saw Tupperware containers and packing tape, and I had to wear a hard hat.

But I heard Vancouver was pretty darn good. And I also heard the complaints, from a few anal columnists at places like The Guardian. And there was that guy in Texas, who compared our Canadian pride to Nazi nationalism in 1936.

The worst part of it all, of course, was the fear that whoever read those misguided, completely intentionally hostile and defamatory articles… the fear was that those readers would have no idea just how wrong those speed writers were.

And I can’t help but feel some sympathy for Sochi’s planners, too. And that’s about where the sympathy ends.

Sympathy for one bit doesn’t excuse or apologize for any of the absolutely disgusting stories that have risen from behind the Iron Closet. There are the country’s anti-gay laws, of course. (And yes, I know they’re not anti-gay but actually anti-gay propaganda. That’s bull. Under these laws, anyone in Russia can define what propaganda means. And, duh, there’s no such thing asgay propaganda. Those laws are meant to target Russian gays and they’re meant to give bigots, abusers, and – yes – murderers a pardon and a reason to continue. Take yesterday’s released video, the one that shows so-called Russian defenders of children attacking gays, as the group called Occupy Pedophiles “humiliated, punched, kicked and forced (gays) to torture themselves” on tape, and one man is apparently forced to rape himself. These twisted laws are as subtle and harmless as Mao’s Cultural Revolution was actually a Cultural Revolution. Yeah, kill people and burn the books you don’t like, and you can call it education. Organized religion has been doing it for centuries. Stalin pulled crap like that, too. Words are terrific and used for good and bad, because you can use them to cover up anything. You can make your dirty and despicable deeds sound nice and even arriving, like how Fascist Nazis called themselves ‘National Socialists’ and then called the murder of eight million people a ‘Final Solution’.)

There are other stories coming out of the world’s largest country, too, like the euthanized stray dogs and the constant spectre of a terrorist attack. Russia is the place where everything we Westerners fear is apparently happening. It’s an academic’s nightmare – it should be a human’s nightmare, but we can’t go thinking there aren’t Americans or Canadians who agree with Putin’s very liberal (ironic word choice) use of power.

But, when it comes to the shared toilets, the dorm rooms for the Olympic men’s hockey teams, and the generally ugly, lonely, and barren venues… well, so what?

I can tell you, 100 per cent, that those ugly bits existed in Vancouver, too. And as blue-collar Canadian as Wayne Gretzky’s pickup truck ride to the Olympic torch was, don’t go thinking there weren’t a few million of the reported (but absolutely inaccurate) one billion who watched the Opening Ceremonies and thought, “Well, that was stupid and cheesy.”

We can’t let Russia off the hook for the very real atrocities it condones. We tend to be lenient with these Olympic countries, like China, and put their obvious ignorance for civility on the backburner.

Because, you know, it’s the Olympics and don’t be so serious, you prick.

We did that in London, even, when we actually treated the Middle East’s inclusion of female athletes like it was some cause to celebrate and mark the day the Olympics were finally gender-blind. But we knew that wasn’t true, even as Lisa LaFlamme told us it was. Those women finished dead last in their events, and dead last by a Paris Prairie mile. There was no progress, no inclusion, no real equality… they simply pacified the rest of us, got us off their back long enough so we would all feel better about ourselves, feel like we had done something good just because we didn’t oppress anyone ourselves.

(And, like, can you imagine if Kenya really gets an Olympics sometime soon?)

So, these are real issues. And Russia has them. Actually, Russia’s promoting them.

But let’s not distract ourselves from them and let’s not get bogged down by worrying about the accommodations of athletes who are doing exactly what they want to be doing for the month of February. Yeah, their facilities might blow, but they’re accomplishing lifelong dreams in the process.

The athletes, the fans, and the journalists are not the ones we have to worry about, and we shouldn’t fall for their tricks, like their need to take their frustration out on Russia by shaming them for the wrong things.

(It’s not unlike Rob Ford, really. A mayor of a major city – any city – should not be smoking crack cocaine, should not be saying “pussy” on live television, and should not act in the way Canada’s Chris Farley (aka Ford) does almost every day. But, we’re going to chastise him for jaywalking, a rule we’re all guilty of breaking? That’s the news we choose to care about?)

If you want to take a stand, take it. But you’ll have to sit down eventually, so choose your battles wisely.

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