Micah Rice: Putin's Russia at odds with Olympic ideal

Commentary: Micah Rice

By Micah Rice, Columbian sports editor

Published:

 

I remember the brown tap water.

I remember the faulty electricity, shameless graft and construction projects left half-finished.

They were parts of daily life when I lived in Russia for one year beginning in fall of 2001.

So call me less than sympathetic to some Western journalists covering the Sochi Olympics. They've tweeted and blogged their horror at encountering unfinished hotels, missing manhole covers and tap water that poses a health risk even for face-washing.

Sochi isn't the Swiss Alps, after all.

I'm just surprised more lipstick hasn't been put on Vladimir Putin's vanity Olympics. I expected to see a more sanitized version of Russia than the one I encountered in the Peace Corps, where I taught English to grade-schoolers in Siberia.

While I'm not sorry to see the journalists rough it for a few weeks, it's a shame for the athletes.

Spartan is about the kindest adjective used to describe the dwellings at the Athletes' Village, where Americans have reported rooms lacking pillows, trash bins and light bulbs.

That's a shame for the athletes that have spent years training for this. And it begs the question: What was the International Olympic Committee thinking?

Never has a host government been more at odds with the Olympic ideal.

An event that promotes understanding and tolerance is happening in the shadow of an anti-gay law that has drawn condemnation from progressive-minded nations.

An event meant to provide an economic boon has seen one third of its $55 billion budget lost to corruption and theft, according to an IOC official.

Consider that $8.7 billion spent on a highway connecting major Sochi venues would have paid for the entire 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, B.C.

An event that once prided itself on the economic equality of its amateur athletes is held in a country where a small class of well-connected oligarchs possesses nearly all the wealth.

How can Moscow devote $55 billion to a sporting event when the infrastructure of its host city is so shoddy that residents can't safely drink the water?

Simply put, Russia is more a kleptocracy than a democracy.

Consider what Mark Nukols, who teaches law and business in Moscow, wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle:

"Undertaking enormous construction projects is one of the best ways to mask large-scale theft from the government budget. And hosting prestigious sporting events appeals to nationalist pride and is more visible to voters than spending on education or health care infrastructure."

Putin's government is dysfunctional, corrupt and antagonistic toward the United States. But one of the first lessons I learned over there was to never apply those traits to the everyday Russian citizen.

Most are loving, generous, humorous and loyal.

Most also have a deep-rooted skepticism forged over decades of tumult.

Will the Olympic ideal sway its host government for the better? I'm as skeptical as a Russian.