Just How Bad Is the Scene in Sochi?

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I had yet to eat my breakfast this morning when someone regaled me with a story about a guy staying up in Sochi’s mountaintop media hotel cluster who turned on his faucet and watched as sewage spilled out. Last night, a colleague returned to her room after a long day of work to find the door swung open, a set of keys still dangling from the lock. Nothing was stolen, but a TV had finally been installed. It could have been worse: The door to one guy’s room was supposedly kicked down by workers trying to put in a cable box.

The tales from the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics go on and on: hotel reservations vanishing, shower rods and curtains nowhere to be found, workers heaving small decorative palm trees off the back of a moving truck and onto the side of the road like paperboys on bicycles.

I arrived at my hotel at the same time as a friendly journalist from Montreal, and when we got to our adjacent rooms (both supposedly temporary until our real rooms are ready), his door handle broke off in his hand. His first souvenir! My bathroom has red Sharpie marks delineating where additional construction should have gone, an unidentified device was attached high up on the wall with masking tape, and there was no caulking. But my hot water works, my pillow is fantastic, and I have lightbulbs, which places me in the top percentile of accommodation privilege. Stacy St. Clair had no water in her room and was told by a receptionist to avoid it even if restored: “Do not use on your face because it contains something very dangerous.” (A quick side note on the sphinxlike front desk clerks, by the way: I am legitimately infatuated with their unparalleled ability to deliver bad news.)

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As far as I can tell, all these stories are real, though it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish the actual from the apocryphal. The Sochi Games have officially entered the Tyson Zone, and they haven’t even begun.

Of course, that’s part of the problem. Without the lovely distraction of competition, without the glint of gold medals blinding everyone to anything else, it’s been all too easy to focus on the quirks and problems and “only in Russia”–style moments that have so far defined these Olympic Games. Once the skiing and sliding and skating begin, I suspect much of the whining will cease. The never-ending matrix of races and events doesn’t allow for much time to use those showers, anyway. Already everyone’s gotten distracted by Shaun White quitting slopestyle. It begins.

The athletes seem to be taking their own three-twin-beds-to-a-dorm-room setup in stride; Sidney Crosby pointed out it was the same deal in Vancouver. I went for a walk around the Olympic Park yesterday, and the venues were beautiful, the mood was festive, and the Dutch speedskaters cruising around on bright orange bicycles were a delight. You could hear the music of the opening-ceremony dress rehearsal echoing around the facilities. Up in the sky, a surveillance blimp took everything in, and I imagine the view was tremendous.

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Sportswriters are notorious for our incessant travel complaints, but these aren’t exactly your run-of-the-mill flight delays. Some things, like the tiles of fresh sod still being unrolled over dusty grounds, are the sort of last-minute scrambles that take place before just about every Olympics. (The tried-and-true Olympic hype cycle always begins with “OMG they’re not ready!” and ends with “OMG the athlete village has run out of condoms!”) These are nonstories. Others, like the toilet paper flushing situation, can go either way: Sure, that’s how things work in many parts of the world, as seasoned travelers know. Yet this is the most expensive Olympic Games in history; none of that $51 billion went to more advanced plumbing?

But something like toxic sludge filling washbasins is another story entirely. As is a maintenance crew kicking down someone’s locked door to install a cable box. It’s a funny image that ties in to a lot of the preconceived notions North Americans have about this place and these people — in Soviet Russia, cable installs you, or whatever — but you wonder what kind of gun the workers, who have already reportedly endured abysmal conditions, must have been under to resort to putting boot to door.

When I got back to my hotel complex last night, I saw another door that shouldn’t have been left open, this one leading down to the cellar. I went down for a peek. As basements of hastily fabricated media housing complexes in corruption-plagued countries go, I imagine, it was not out of the ordinary: low, dripping ceilings; cords and cables slung inches away from dank puddles; workers’ belongings and equipment; a random Castaway-style handprint on a wall. Standard stuff. Then I came upon a small, poignant sculpture crafted out of tinfoil and propped up on a pipe. It was a hand, giving the middle finger. Whether the sentiment was directed at Russian President Vladimir Putin, or at some asshole foreman, or at me, I can’t say.

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Even outside the provincial confines of media housing, the headlines have gotten increasingly bizarre. Chuck Schumer is apparently harassing the Russian ambassador about a blocked shipment of Chobani yogurt. Earlier this week, Putin visited a “Persian leopard sanctuary” not far from where the Games will be held. He posed with a baby leopard on his lap. “We made friends,” he said. Then the animal lashed out at a few reporters on the scene, scratching one on the hand and biting one on the knee. It seemed fitting.

Filed Under: 2014 Winter Olympics, Katie Baker, Sochi

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes