In a globalized economy of predictable experiences for business travelers and world dignitaries, Sochi, Russia, has been a shock to people arriving for their Olympic experience.
Even something as basic as water has been in some cases beyond the ability of organizers to provide. We have been in countries where we are told not to drink the water. It’s bad, but it’s what goes on out there. But Sochi has taken this to a new level. One guest found amber-brown-colored water coming from her bathroom faucet after having no water at all since she arrived. She was told not to put it on her face “because it contains something very dangerous.”
Another guest reported, “Almost every room is missing something: lightbulbs, TVs, lamps, chairs, curtains, Wi-Fi, heat, hot water. Shower curtains are a valuable piece of the future black market here.” Paving stones were being set just days before Friday’s opening ceremony. And there’s the dogs. The city is filled with stray dogs that authorities began rounding up only at the last minute. Someone even found one in his room.
This all sounds like an internet farce perpetrated by jokesters. But these observations come from journalists who arrived to find their Sochi hospitality a story in itself. The story is not that reporters need to toughen up and stop complaining. These plumbing and accommodation complaints expose the hollow boasts of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Russian imperial re-assertion.
The Olympics are always an occasion for national boosterism. Host governments seize upon them to “showcase” the glories of their nation, including the government’s organizational command and the country’s economic prowess and modern status. The more unsure the country is of itself, the higher the stakes are for flawless execution on a grand scale. And so it is no secret that Putin is using these Winter Games to roll out the new Russia he has built. So what do we see?
Twenty-five years ago, the old Soviet Union collapsed from economic, moral, and political bankruptcy. Restructuring to a free market economy and a liberal democratic government put the still sizable Russian rump on the road to modern prosperity and liberty. Rising oil prices brought a huge influx of petrodollars to fund investment in a modern infrastructure.
But no such thing has happened. Fifty percent of Russia’s gross domestic product comes from state-owned enterprises, many of which are, not surprisingly, bloated with inefficiencies and corruption. Putin has reversed much of the privatization of Soviet-era industry and doused a great deal of press freedom so that post-Soviet economic and political restructuring is more apparent than real.
The tattered and laughable red carpet the Russians extended for their Olympic guests is what comes of this. Half-built hotels, toilets that don’t flush, and 5-foot beds for 6-foot hockey players. And this is their best effort despite spending $51 billion on the most expensive Olympic Games by far.
True national glory is providing good government for a free people. Everything else is vapor and farce.