The Winter Olympics are in full swing and people are as excited as they can possibly be over a collection of sports they really don’t care about under normal circumstances. (Yeah, women’s biathlon pursuit!) Let’s face it, Winter Olympics are the redheaded stepchild of the Olympics world, the Pro Bowl following the Super Bowl of international competition. With the Summer Olympics, we get popular events like basketball, tennis, soccer, wrestling and gymnastics—events that are practiced all over the world. In the Winter Olympics, we get curling—stuff that’s big in Canada and a couple of Nordic nations. Not a lot of cross-country skiing in Kenya. Or speed skating in Cambodia.
Yet this year’s XXII Olympic Winter Games is creating an awful lot of buzz—mostly for negative reasons. The majority of the attention has been focused on the games’ host nation, Russia, for assembling what looks like a pretty slipshod production. Before the games even started in Sochi, we were treated to endless photos of messed-up toilets, stray dogs in hotel rooms and workers desperately trying to lay bricks on roadways before the tourists showed up. (The phrase “Sochi toilets” now pulls up more than 80 million results on Google.) The Olympics are an expensive (and risky) way for a nation to show off its civic pride. The general consensus is that Russia blew about $50 billion to pull off these games—easily the most expensive Olympics ever mounted. So far they’ve been marred by behind-the-scenes controversy (Russia’s strict antigay policy, that Obama-hating racist who lit the Olympic flame) and before-the-camera embarrassment (the bungled reveal of the Olympic rings at the opening ceremonies, Bob Costas’ creeping eye infection).
A lot of the criticism seems to lead back to Russia’s manly majordomo Vladimir Putin, who allegedly chose the Sochi site because it’s his favorite resort. Unfortunately it’s the Russian equivalent of a tropical spa, filled with palm trees and a temperate climate. All things considered, it’s not the the best spot to hold games predicated entirely on ice and snow. With temps climbing as high as 68 degrees, Sochi is currently warmer than Cairo. Despite the reassurances of a Finnish “snow expert” the Russians flew in, the downhill skiing competitions have looked downright dangerous, with skiers bumping down an increasingly slushy white hill surrounded by lush green mountains.
There have been some positive highlights, of course. On two ends of the age spectrum, 31-year-old figure skater Evgeni Plushenko is a badass, while 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia has been perfection on ice. Those three mogul-skiing sisters from Canada seem cool. America got two gold medals in snowboarding. For the most part, though, people seem to be watching these trouble-plagued Winter Olympics waiting for the Russians to fail—not on the field of competition, but off of it.