Photos of Sochi’s Olympic construction, showing piles of trash, unfinished sidewalks, and half-built hotels, are making the Internet rounds today, seemingly proof that one week before the opening ceremony, Sochi is “screwed.” A consensus seems to be building that thanks to construction delays and evidence of massive corruption, serious concerns about terrorism, and the harsh spotlight the event has focused on the treatment of LGBT people in Russia, the event is going to be an embarrassing fiasco for Vladimir Putin’s government. I wouldn’t count on it. Or at least, if things do go wrong, it's not going to be in the embarrassing but not catastrophic way that Vladimir Putin's international critics seem to be hoping for.
First, some historical perspective is needed. Bad press is always a feature of the lead-up to these events, but usually swiftly dissipates once the competitions are underway. It's never as bad as it looks like it's going to be a few weeks before the opening ceremony.
Six weeks before the Athens Olympics in 2004, the New York Times worriedly reported that “the main Olympic park and the soccer stadium are still construction sites” and that officials were “running out of time” to install proper security measures just a few months after the catastrophic Madrid train bombing.
The news in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics was dominated by human rights protesters disrupting the torch relay, a harsh crackdown on protesters in Xinjiang, international calls for boycott over China’s support for Sudan, and the deaths of workers in stadium construction. Today, the arrest of AIDS activist Hu Jia and eight American pro-Tibet protesters during the games is remembered quite a bit less than the stunning opening ceremonies and Michael Phelps’ record-breaking performance in the pool.
In the run-up to South Africa’s World Cup in 2010, concerns about construction delays, strikes, and crime, reached the point that FIFA President Sepp Blatter admitted there was a backup plan in place if the country turned out not to be ready. (Things weren’t helped by Fleet Street scare stories that made it seem as though Britons would be mugged, murdered, and infected with AIDS the moment they got off the plane.) The event went fine.
Even London’s Olympics were the subject of pessimism about the city’s preparedness from the press and certain U.S. presidential candidates thanks to construction delays, the fragile state of the British economy, and an embarrassing scandal over security preparations.
I don't mean to minimize the human rights concerns around the games themselves and Russia in general, and I’ll grant that the problems facing Sochi have been more serious than those facing previous games. I can certainly think of better ways to spend $51 billion. But this kind of coverage can also serve to lower expectations.
As long as the Olympics facilities hold up for two weeks—if history is any guide, they may never be used again after that—there isn’t a major terrorist attack, nothing too awful happens to any spectators, and there isn’t a major political protest that has to be broken up by police in the middle of action, the games will probably be considered a surprising success by the standards of the pre-event coverage. If major headline-grabbing event doesn’t happen during the games, NBC’s cameras will remain fixed on the ice rink and the slopes, not the unfinished sidewalks.
Such an event is certainly not out of the question—hopefully, if it does happen, it will be more 1968 than 1972—but given the number of large institutions that have a vested interest in the Olympics going well, most likely, things will turn out somewhat better than expected, and we can all do this again for Brazil this summer.