Why it’s ok to keep laughing at Sochi

Sochi, remember you asked for this scrutiny.
Sochi, remember you asked for this scrutiny.
Image: AP Photo/Andy Wong
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Yes, yes sporting events such as the Olympic Games—both Summer and Rich White People versions—remind us of the rousing possibilities of the human spirit: the brotherhood of nations and the virtues of competition, the vow to live in peace followed by plans to bomb your nation next week. They also remind us of the hilarity that ensues when countries spend huge amounts of money on a ridiculous vanity project with the occasional farcical outcome.

Sochi 2014 has been uncommonly generous with the latter. In the week leading up to the opening ceremony, there was an unending stream of stories about horrible media accommodation, killing of stray dogs, unfinished venues, surveillance cameras in bathrooms, and so on. Today’s latest appears that we have achieved “Peak Sochi Fail” with the news that American bob sleigher Johnny Quinn, fresh from smashing his way out of a bathroom in the athlete’s village after the door got jammed, then got stuck in an elevator three days later.

Predictably there has been a backlash to the finger-pointing and laughing. Some writers have asked the media to calm down and get a grip. Stop laughing at Sochi, they say, for two reasons. First, many of the photos circulated are fake, mislabeled, or outdated. Fair point. Second, they say, it simply isn’t fair or sporting to laugh at Sochi so much. Christopher Read at the Conversation asked for the world to back off Putin and Sochi: “The point is, the hypocrisy with which the mainstream media and political classes, especially in Britain and the USA, approach the country. The breathtaking way they attack Russia for attitudes and actions present in their own societies seems to be unrelenting.”

He goes onto ask the West and Russia to “move on from the politics of three-year olds into a more mature and fruitful engagement on both sides.”

He has a point. Indeed, the false stories, pictures, and tweets that misrepresent are unfair and uncalled for. But the mocking and laughing is not only legitimate but also tremendously important. Here are seven reasons why:

  1. Make no mistake about it. Countries choose to host Olympic events to make a point: that they are powerful, strong, important, rich enough to spend the billions involved, and desperately want to be taken seriously. Fair enough. But this doesn’t mean that they get a free pass from the moment they win the rights to host. Otherwise they’re going to get all that credit for basically spending a lot of public money badly. No way.
  2. Some of this international mocking is the only way many of the locals in the hosting country, whose taxes pay for the event, know how their administrators are getting along. Organizers and sporting bodies, always close to local and national administrations, prefer to keep a tight lid on what actually goes on behind the scenes.
  3. And even if citizens of the hosting nation know what is going on, not all of them have the right to speak up and complain, leave alone the right to point and laugh. Precisely why the international community should step in.
  4. In the rare instance that citizens know and point and laugh, the truth is that not a lot of governments take their own media or citizens seriously. CNN, on the other hand, is taken very seriously. One irate CNN anchor can often get more bulldozers bulldozing, carpenters carpenting and administrators administrating than a thousand local citizens marching on the venue.
  5. Because the next time somebody decides to bid for an event of Sochi-like scope, they and their citizens will think twice before turning the event into a giant, corrupt, money-printing, engine of mockery.
  6. Even better, it might make many people wonder if the humiliation, the corruption, the questionable legacy, the white elephants and the damage to the exchequer is worth the glamour of hosting an Olympics or World Cup.
  7. And finally these tweets are important because they are really quite funny indeed. A bob sleigher who has to smash himself out of a locked bathroom. You can’t make this stuff up. Game on, Rio!