Are problems at Sochi Olympics being blown out of proportion?

The Sochi Olympics have had their problems, but they've been nothing out of the ordinary. The unusually strong focus on those problems comes amid heavy scrutiny of Russia as host.

Mark Humphrey/AP
To some, this could be the enduring image of the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics Friday.

The term cold war could probably be applied to any Winter Olympics, but one day into the Sochi Games, it appears to have a particular poignancy here.

Americans, it would seem, have been led to believe that journalists in Sochi are living out of pup tents, foraging for berries, and having to kill itinerant yak for sustenance. In some cases, journalists have arrived to find their hotel unbuilt or the water undrinkable.

Then the fifth Olympic ring failed to open from a snowflake during the signature opening sequence of the opening ceremony Friday night, and many suspicions seemed confirmed: Sochi is a mess. The "Sochi Problems" Twitter feed, after all, has more followers than the official feed.

Yet by the measure of early hiccups at an Olympic Games, Sochi isn't particularly remarkable. "These are standard problems," says David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians.

So then why all the fuss?

Along with security concerns, Olympic blunders have become standard media fare during the week before any Olympic Games. In that way, Sochi simply fits a trend: As the Olympics get bigger, there is more scope for things to go wrong.

Yet the fervency of the narrative here in Sochi suggests that lingering cold war perceptions of Russian incompetence, as well as fears and anger about the Olympics being given to Russia in the first place, could be playing a subtle role.

To be sure, much of the American press arrived in Sochi in a grumpier mood than usual.

First, some felt that by granting the Games to Russia – and Sochi, in particular – the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was gambling innocent lives to curry favor with a man many Americans see as a pseudo-dictator, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sochi lies in the shadow of the Caucasus, the heartland of Russian terrorism, and indeed, the Sochi Games are the first post-9/11 Olympics to face a specific and credible terrorist threat.

Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post stated this point elegantly and emphatically in an argument against the IOC before the Games began.

"So the staging of the Sochi Games has become a contest of wills between Putin and the insurgents, with innocents squarely in the crossfire," she wrote. "The IOC is wholly responsible for this: It should have denied Putin the internal prestige he craves, while depriving the insurgents of a major target, by removing the Games when it was still politically and logistically possible."

Congressional hearings and official comments on security threats during the runup to the Olympics stoked fears further. Add to that the anger over Russia's law against gays and lesbians, and questions about the Sochi Olympics gained momentum. No major Western leaders, including President Obama, attended the opening ceremonies Friday as a pointed poke in the eye to Mr. Putin.

It was in this atmosphere that the American media arrived, with some finding their hotels did not yet exist.

"When you mess up with the media before the Games start, you're going to have a problem," says Mr. Wallechinsky.

Of course, leaving some of the media temporarily homeless is not a shining star on Sochi's legacy. But those experiences have not all been typical, and other Olympics have not been models of clockwork organization, either. In Athens, for example, I was told to flip a certain switch before taking a shower or I would get electrocuted. 

Yet Russia sometimes plays into its own stereotypes, appearing to confirm latent cold war perceptions in the West. Though the fifth Olympic ring failed to open, Russian television viewers did not see it. Russian television spliced in a clip from a rehearsal where all the rings worked.

Again, mistakes at the opening ceremony are hardly unprecedented – and big ones, too. In Vancouver, one of the pillars designed to hold the Olympic flame failed to rise out of the floor. But Vancouver responded by ribbing their own mistake at the closing ceremony, not attempting to convince Canadians that it never happened.

Aside from the legitimate concerns about terrorism, the real concern of the first days of the Sochi Olympics could turn out to be crowd size, Wallechinsky suggests. It's too early to draw conclusions, but the USA-Finland women's hockey match was sparsely attended at first.

"There were lots and lots of empty seats."

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