The 2014 Winter Olympics technically got started today, but the big party kicks of tomorrow. A part of me has always had more of a fondness for the Winter Games; the setting is usually some sweeping mountainous landscape, full of snowy grandeur that lends an epic feel to the proceedings. But the only thing Sochi is lending to the proceedings this time around is an epic fail.
I grew up with the Cold War Olympiads, where we had the evil Soviets and their obviously chemically enhanced athletes going up against our good old-fashioned natural ones. Sure it was scandalous, but it was part of the game, and what made our eventual victories all the more thrilling; they cheated, and we still beat them. And through it all, the structure of the Games never became the story. People stayed in hotels, moved around cities, used facilities, and outside of some traffic jams and general grumblings about how much money everything cost, the competition was the story.
With Sohci though, the athletes have become a virtual afterthought. And almost literally: a ski run had to be shut down when the speed of the actual Olympic skiers turned a hill that had been a minor bump to the test skiers into a veritable moon shot. But the real story has been how a practically brand new city can look like a dilapidated hell hole on the eve of the opening ceremonies. Unfinished hotel rooms, unsafe water, open manholes, killing stray dogs, surveillance cameras in bathrooms; it’s like someone’s actually staging an elaborate parody of a Yakov Smirnov routine as a precursor to the Games.
And it’s a catastrophic embarrassment that frankly has me not giving a damn about the Olympics. A lot of the blame is being heaped on Vladimir Putin and the Sochi organizing committee, and rightly so. They’ve known for years they’d be getting these Games, and it seems like they just started getting ready last Thursday. But this also has to be a huge black eye for the IOC. They may have delegated the organization to Russia, but they picked Sochi. This is their baby. And I can’t help but think this is going to lead to seismic changes in the Olympic landscape. You can probably write off any small city getting an Olympics again, and I bet Russia is on a great big black list all by itself at this point.
I almost wonder if the Winter Olympics might be on life support too after this. Oh, it’s not going to fade away any time soon, but this might be the year we mark as when the wheels came off. Its sports aren’t easy for poorer athletes to get into — anybody can run or jump, but not everyone can afford skis and ice skates — and the requisite weather always had the potential to cause problems for fans and athletes alike. Maybe it’d be easier to throw figure skating back into the Summer Games like it was in the beginning and not hold events that live or die based on whether it snows or not.
Not that I want that to happen. I still have fond memories of names like Innsbruck and Lillehammer and the Nordic splendor they conjure up. But all Sochi conjures up is the grasping greed of a potential payday. The Olympic motto is “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” It’s just supposed to be applied to how you have to be when your hotel’s elevator isn’t working.