What We Talk About When We Talk About Sochi

A conversation about what's messed up in Sochi, and what's messed up about how we talk about it.
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Patrick Redford: Robert, I’ve been struck by this weird eagerness on the part of sports reporters to characterize Sochi as a dystopian hellscape. Which indeed it may be, but also much of this is so silly. "They don't know how to poop! How crazy is that?" It's a different place, but there are so many potential things to write about, here, and instead everyone is focusing on wacky Russian hospitality mix-ups.

Robert Silverman: My initial reaction to all of this is... good. I mean, if a quote-unquote "beach community" referred to as “the Florida of Russia” -- a prospect, by the way, which is just too nightmarish to contemplate, save for the @Sochi_Man Twitter feed that might arise -- and which unsurprisingly also used to be Stalin's favorite place to relax and take his mind off the day-to-day struggles of mass genocide, is deemed by the IOC to be the perfect spot for the celebration of what is the best and purest in sporting competition, then yes, a bit of mockery would seem to be in order.

It's been about six and a half years, and even with Russian governmental accounting methods being what they are -- i.e. nonexistent or a complete fabrication bearing little to no resemblance to reality -- it's been estimated that the coffers have dished out upwards of $50 billion to polish the various palm trees of this post-Soviet Key West. That's not including what in all likelihood must be a tsunami of unreported kickbacks, bribes, graft, and shakedown payoffs to the leaders of industry that build this shitty, incredibly expensive version of the fake town in Blazing Saddles. It’s the most costly Games in the history of everything, and it’s not close.

And that's before we even delve into the rampant bigotry, the corruption, and the fact that this nascent 'capitalist' state is in fact a horror show of a Kleptocracy/Oligarchy. So if the sporting press wants to get their LOL's off writing about missing pillows or even about roving gangs of wild-eyed cyborg dog catchers/canine assassination squads, why is that a bad thing? Why take issue with "the tone" when there’s so much that so deserves outrage?

Patrick: Right, so Putin and Friendz are awful. There's no way to polish that turd and no point in doing it. By all accounts this is a brutal, repressive turd that tolerates no dissent, and the human and doggie rights record is enough to get angry over before you even touch the missing cash.

However, those types of issues aren't exactly the ones being dealt with. There is a sly transference of narrative away from "Putin is a corrupt nightmare person" to "LOL Russia so crazy!" It's unfair of me to put this all on the reporters, and in the photos of brown water, strange room arrangements, and toilet paper cans, there is an implicit criticism of the processes and power structures behind it. That being said, the tone of exceptionalism bothers me.

Faucets that spew sewage are dangerous and deserve to be called out, but attention is directed at the absurdity of it all. "These tweets are funny! There goes kooky Russia, always so silly haw haw haw" is different than a genuine inquiry into where the money all went. It's unreasonable to expect American journalists to answer those questions, maybe. They are sports reporters, not investigative financial reporters. Also it’s dangerous to report on those things in Russia.

My problem is that reporters communicate the byproducts of systemic corruption in such a way as to present those as products of an absurd culture, as the way it goes for a backwards non-American people. These problems aren’t cosmetic, but you could get that impression. It's not sinister, they are doing their jobs and the tonal shift is a matter of perception and repackaging as much as the actual reportage. But toilet proximity isn't a big deal; the no-toilet-paper-in-the-toilets issue isn’t even weird in the rest of the world. It shouldn't get the same bandwidth or attention as sewage being in suspicious places, despite billions of dollars spent on construction. By conflating the two, it obfuscates the real problems.

Robert: Okay, and yes, for the most part I agree. Kvetching about laughable, KGB-relic spy urinals and hotel rooms that literally go missing is petty at best, and can serve as a kind of inadvertent journalistic slight of hand, giving the impression that if the gang of shiny-suited thugs that run this country could just get all this hospitality shit squared away, everything would be hunky-dory.

And yes, the descendants of Grantland Rice aren’t really posited to delve into the massive, systemic issues that plague this country, but what's the alternative? In the drips and drabs of reportage leading up to the actual games, you think they should be channeling Matt Taibbi and delivering harrowing, profoundly depressing daily dispatches?

Actually, that's a really good idea. Get Taibbi off the Wall Street beat, and send him into the bosom of Mother Russia just to see if he can get back into a freaky, The eXile-era groove with Mark Ames—like a modern day Dr. Gonzo and his Samoan attorney—and really raise a stink. That would be the bee’s knees.

But I think rather than deflecting from the problems, the snark can actually be a kind of a gateway drug into the substantial stuff. I hate to be the kind of guy who slings the phrase, "for the average fan," but I sense that the average Olympics viewer is there to gawk at the figure skaters or slalom skiing or curling or whatever sport it is that people who dig freezing-ass activities tune into watch. (Don't ask me, I find the Olympics to be preternaturally dull.) So for this person, who might not know more about the political/economic/human rights issues that abound, what if they stumbled upon this HuffPo piece about the hacking of any and every communications device more sophisticated than two cans and a piece of twine? Maybe that’s the kind of thing that might get them questioning the surveillance methods used in this country, or even slightly curious about all the other mishegas that Putin pulls on the regular.

Hell, Bob Costas said, “Pussy Riot” on television. That’s something.

So perhaps all the LOLs aren’t just belittling a country that used to be considered our all-powerful, potentially apocalyptic enemy or a means to deflect from actual crimes and human rights violations. Maybe consider them a clever, borderline Alinksy-ite means of opening doors into an inquisition without (as our wingnut colleagues are fond of saying), "cramming it down their throats." Maybe someone is going to Google Pussy Riot later tonight, and end up watching the HBO doc, or wonder why a freaking punk band was jailed and endeavor to find out. And that's all good, right?

Patrick: “Harold! Bobby C is on the TV, wouldja go to the Googly and ask it for ‘pussy giant’?”

I joke, but you’re right. Something is better than nothing and education is where change starts. I’m intrigued to see what it’ll be like when the puck is dropped and the snowboarders compete for a big golden bowl full of Tostitos and America watches carefully sculpted coverage of our new national heroes. Our viewing experience is mostly mediated through NBC and they’ll get eyeballs on TV’s and asses on couches with the promise of medals and patriotism. I wonder if they’ll talk about Pussy Riot at all. Coverage of past Olympics that I’ve watched is characterized by a bland, inspirational positivity. This Vermont Man Snowshoed Through 10 Miles Of Wolf Country Everyday And You Won’t Believe What Happened, etc.

So once everyone focuses on sprotsgames, all that wacky sewage nonsense will gradually be pushed aside and remembered as silly ol’ Russia being weird. In Beijing, the air pollution was a constant talking point because it played an integral part in the competitions. It’s more complicated in the case of Sochi and the social pollution that defines it thus far.

Maybe I am being overly pessimistic. Russia’s awful, hateful anti-LGBT stance has gotten lots of play and will probably continue to, as well it should really. The Olympics seem like nationalist Kabuki theatre, but this issue is pretty clear-cut and I could see the media leveraging it to sell American superiority. Which itself is a cynical way of going about it, but if it elevates the discourse, good! Like you and Alinsky said, gotta start somewhere! It’s possible to differentiate between protecting LGBT rights and America as World Police King 4Ever, but the media isn’t going to do that for you.

Robert: If I was going to match you grouchy, cynically pessimistic shot for grouchy, cynically pessimistic shot, I’d completely reverse course here and say that you were right to begin with; that for all of my blather about hopefully reaching one or two fresh, untainted minds, whether it’s the flag-waving thrill of victory/agony of defeat or the wise wags snickering in the corner about the backward-ass Russkies—it’s all part of the same marketing strategy; one that’s selling a particularly slick, worry-free, jingoistic version of these United States.

In my darkest moments, like Philip K. Dick in the midst of an all-night Darvon/Amphetamine bender, I’d even go so far as to say that the machine has even accounted for and likes all the smart people out there writing smart things about #SPROTS, including the highly critical rebukes. And whether or not we’re getting a better, more enlightened understanding of the games we love (we are), to the guys n’ gals in the boardrooms, it’s just another thing that’s being Instagrammed or Facebooked or Pinterested or Twittered, then absorbed, liked, shared, linked and ultimately forgotten/subsumed by the insatiable maw of the interwebs.

The content and/or quality has no impact, so in the end we’re all just writing really insightful, really good advertising copy—a commercial for a product that really doesn’t care how poetically you call it a monstrous horror show and/or the people that run it vile swine or even how insightfully you parse the full sociological/political/epistemological impact of a well-executed pick and roll, as long as you spell the names on the back of the jerseys correctly. All buzz sounds the same.

Also, my uncles’ are named Gordon and Jerry. If you’re going to invoke my family in your two-handed playlet, I’d ask that you get their names right too.

Patrick: Sometimes, Robert, it’s almost like you don’t love #brands.

It’s easy to get bummed out by the loud emptiness and corporate-driven nature of these things, but it’s essential to remember that ethical consumption is trickier than it seems. Unless you’re living in a yurt in the woods and spending your days sustainably eating tree bark, you are complicit in something. It’s unavoidable. Better to focus our energies on building a critical conscience and educating yourself and your community. So yeah, exposure of Russia’s Olympic-centric shittiness can lead to positive change, but it’s essential to think critically rather than fall into the trap of anti-foreigner imperialist thinking.

Sports can be a good access to point to learn about bigger, more important things, but they can also be an arena to play out petty tribalisms. The Olympics are the largest scale example of this. The philosophical stakes of the Games are orders of magnitude higher than a February game between the Bobcats and the Kings. Sportswriters are critical in informing opinions and attitudes and, regardless of who exactly benefits from the clicks they accrue, their voices are a real part of an important conversation.

Robert: So did I convince you or did you convince me?

Patrick: I think we reached a happy medium.

Robert: Sweet. Olympics-branded dinner’s on me!

Patrick: Я люблю кусочки курицы и жир!

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