Russian President Vladimir Putin is blaming early criticism of the Sochi Winter Games on a lingering Western, anti-Russian mentality dating back to the Cold War. In a televised Tuesday address, Putin told reporters that negative Sochi stories were essentially designed to "contain" the success of Russia and its people. Here's what he said, via the Globe and Mail:
“Back in Cold War times the theory of containment was created. This theory and its practice were aimed at restraining the development of the Soviet Union... what we see now are echoes of this containment theory. This, unfortunately, has also applied to the Olympic project.”
When it comes to, say, the schadenfreude of the "Sochi Problems" meme, Putin does have a point here. The New Republic's Julia Ioffe parsed an earlier Russian accusation of western glee at any and every Sochi mishap, pinpointing the weird, anti-Russian anticipation of coverage of the Games's readiness:
It does seem like the Western press is on the hunt for evidence of how inept and hilarious the Russians are. There does seem to be something mean-spirited in all of this, as if the Western press came hoping to encounter pillow shortages and rusty water.
This is a good read on last week's coverage of the Games, during which a rising pile of minor problems — some of which are just part of life in Russia — fed an overall assumption that Sochi would be a disaster. But when it comes to Putin's broad statement about overall negative takes on Russia's handling of Sochi, to paraphrase Columbo, there's just one more thing: the most substantial criticism of the Sochi Games has been led by Russian activists.
It was Russians protesting against the country's anti-gay laws who were arrested on Friday during the opening ceremonies. A comprehensive database of evidence of Sochi-based corruption was compiled by a famous Russian activist named Alexei Navalny. These stories do deserve scrutiny, both in and out of Russia.
The preparation for the Sochi games is not perfect, but Russia has yet to see a true disaster at its games. The coverage of the country's preparation to host the Olympics, however, is a different story from the ongoing reports of corruption and LGBT discrimination. Those issues were there before the games, and they'll linger long after the world's media leaves Sochi in a few weeks. It makes sense that those who report on, or advocate against, Russian discrimination and corruption would hope the games might draw attention to the crises at hand.
Putin and other Russian officials have demonstrated a perfectly understandable strategy of putting the anti-gay laws on hold where such discrimination would be most visible at Sochi — Putin even "cuddled" an openly lesbian speed skater after she won a Sochi gold. So sure, sports reporters who are there to cover sports and only sports could take a cue from Putin and dial back a bit on hilarious photos of dirty tap water — something that has happened naturally as the Games got under way last weekend. On the other issues, however, the real story is what happens in Sochi's shadow, and not on the podium. Those stories can and will continue to be made visible.