Guide for Journalists Covering the Sochi Olympics

Since The Washington Post ran a slideshow of “shocking” photos of Olympic unpreparedness in Sochi early this week, I’ve been increasingly grumpy. Western reporters landed in Russia’s little slice of paradise on the Black Sea and immediately began complaining about everything around them. Some of their anecdotes and observations were funny- I couldn’t help but smile at poor translations on menus around town, which I myself enjoyed while cavorting around Russia- but others just seemed like they were coming from inexperienced travelers with little knowledge of Russia. …That, or whiny teenagers.

And then the tweets and reports kept coming. Facebook friends who likely cannot find the Black Sea on a map were suddenly experts on Sochi’s construction mismanagement. Others sent me their extremely original discoveries as if to say, “Finally, I have something to talk to you about! Also, you studied this craphole?! Joke’s on  you!”

I, along with many other Russophiles, have reached my breaking point.

In order to help journalists enjoy the rest of their time in Sochi and enjoy successful interactions with other non-Western countries and cultures in the future, I have created a handy guide based on the most common complaints I read from journalists:

  1. Can’t use the tap water in your hotel room? WELCOME TO MOST COUNTRIES THAT ARE NOT THE UNITED STATES. A lot of the pipes in Russia are pretty old and may have been in dubious shape even when installed during the Soviet era. You should not drink this water or put it near your face. Showering should be fine. On the bright side, you can practice your Russian at the kiosk down the street where you buy your bottled h2o. Protip: grocery stores have 5 gallon jugs. (I realized while I was typing you probably didn’t even try to pick up some basic Russian phrases. Sigh…)
  2. Is there a sign asking you to throw your toilet paper in the trash can, and not in the toilet? Again, pretty normal. See above re: pipes. They can’t handle the massive wads of Charmin Ultrasoft you like to use, let alone how much rough Russian toilet paper you’ll take to compensate. You should really just be thankful that you have “Western-style” toilets, because – gasp! – squat toilets exist in countries outside of the United States, including Russia.
  3. Awwww, your hotel bed’s a single bed? Are you feeling a little claustrophobic, or was your plan to bring a Russian hottie back to your room for some alone time suddenly foiled by reality? Every European hotel I’ve stayed in (except one) has had tiny, single beds. The construction of your hotel probably evicted a bunch of Sochi residents from their lifelong homes, so at least you have a roof over your head.
  4. If you are going to bash Russia, please do it for things it deserves. Maybe because you are against Russia’s treatment of gays, or because you worry about Sochi’s environmental implications. Don’t make fun of an entire country because you have no travel sense or moral standards.
  5. I’m sorry that you can’t easily dry your hair, take a hot shower, connect to the Internet, or use an elevator to get to your room. Consider for a second that perhaps the correct response is not “RUSHA SUCKZ!” but “Hmmm, seems like the IOC made an oops!”
  6. Most importantly, you are at the Olympics, an event that attempts to promote peace and cultural understanding through sport. Try to embody that sentiment, rather than supporting the reputation of “Ugly Americanism.”

I, for one, will treasure my memories of Sochi from my trip there, and I’m totally amped to watch the Opening Ceremonies tonight.


    1. Thanks for reading! 🙂

  1. Mr. I've-Lived-In-Russia-Too says:

    The Potemkin Village analogy is one that I find pretty resonant/intriguing, though… (Of course, there are folks out there who think that the Potemkin Village story has been exaggerated above & beyond what actually happened back then in the 1780s…) Watching the very impressive Opening Ceremonies in Sochi may’ve helped our fellow Americans put things into perspective, as far as showing what our Russian friends can accomplish when they put their minds to it, but even if you’re one of the Great Cultures of the World, you shouldn’t be treating guest workers or stray dogs inhumanely… To be respected, you also have to show respect to others! [Getting off my soapbox now!]

    1. Totally agree! I wish more time was being paid to covering the real injustices of these Olympics, not the inconveniences. Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

  2. Woah, woah, woah……

    I lived in Kyiv for 9 years, Moscow for 3 years, and your “observations” do not ring true with my experience….

    1. Yes, in many countries, you should not drink the water. But, Russia likes to pretend that it’s one of the modern, industrialized, advanced countries. But, while I would drink the water in the US and the many places I’ve stayed all across Western-Europe, I wouldn’t drink it in Russia. In fact, many Russians (in the cities, of course) have water deliveries on a weekly basis. I don’t think it is accurate to say “Welcome to MOST countries that are not the US.” How about “Welcome to most countries that are formerly from behind the Iron Curtain?

    2. Your flippant remark about visitors not bothering to learn some basic Russian phrases just makes you sound petty. I can’t remember how many basic phrase books for *any* language say “Excuse me, I need to buy a 5 liter bottle of water because my hotel doesn’t have safe drinking water.”

    3. The bigger issue is that this is on the world stage. They (Russian OC) WANTED the Games, wanted the money, wanted the development and so I don’t think it’s too much to ask or expect that, for the duration of the games, it’s a top-notch place. And, by all reports, it’s not.

    4. As I said I lived in Ukraine and Russia for 12 years, and the *only* places that I saw throwing toilet paper in the trash was in small resort towns. Again, world stage, they have SEVEN years to prepare for it, so really no excuse.

    5. Single beds. Again, I saw it often, but not in hotels that had 500+ or 1000+ rooms and certainly not for the Olympics. You seem to often forget that this is the Olympics, not some EBRD conference for bankers and stuff. And bringing up the “Russian hottie” is you furthering a Russian stereotype, not the reporters. And once again, seems like a fourth grader’s argument, not rational and thoughtful discourse.

    6. And then you make a blanket comment about people’s travel awareness and moral standards. Who made you the standards bearer?

    7. It’s not just a question of “can’t use an elevator to get to your room.” It’s the fact that at least in one case, the athlete pressed the button for the elevator, the doors opened, but there was no elevator. It was a shaft! That’s just dangerous. And, I repeat, they had seven years to prepare for this. IOC made a mistake? Really? Russia puts on a song-and-dance show to convince the IOC that “we’re no longer corrupt, we can build the venues we promise, it will be all working on schedule” and the IOC is to blame? Hmmmmmm. Had they *not* picked Russia and said “We can’t trust Russia to get it done without corruption, etc.” your blog post would have been much different. And, I doubt you would have sided with the IOC for the astute decision.

    8. Just because the reporters you seem to be referencing are Americans and therefore their comments and complaints make you think of “Ugly Americanism,” don’t forget all of the other Olympics that the same American reporters went to other Olympics and didn’t have the same comments to share, or not the same level of criticism. So, if the commenters are the same, but their comments are different, perhaps Russia is deserving of the criticism?

    I loved my time in Ukraine and Russia. The people I met and befriended were great, hard-working, thoughtful, warm and helpful people. I love Moscow and Russia and more. But, I still recognize that in Russia, big projects like this often have these kinds of problems. Problems that could be avoided. Problems that don’t seem to happen (to the same degree) in other places. People in power, be it the President or the leaders of cities or OC’s, are often corrupt. I’ve seen plenty of cases, big and small, where the construction jobs are really crap. And it saddens me, because I know that they are capable of so much more, so much better.

    I am sad that the Olympics in Sochi will be marred by such problems, but it serves no one to remain silent, to sweep it under the rug, just shrug one’s shoulders.

    Good luck to all the athletes, but shame on the nameless, anonymous people in charge who were not able to prevent these kinds of stories from happening. It could have all been avoided.

    1. Hi, Thanks for reading and commenting! Most of my experience in Russia is in Saint Petersburg, but from my life in SPB and travels outside, I encountered the toilet paper/single beds/no drinking water fairly frequently wherever I went. This is just my experience, but I encountered it enough times to be able to generalize.

      As for the language question, to learn to say “butylka vody pozhaluista” isn’t that hard. These are all smart people and learning a few simple phrases is a part of traveling anywhere. I’m not asking them to learn the intricacies of Russian grammar, but my remark was just to comment on the general lack of cultural sensitivity among the entire crowd.

      I’m not arguing that there are some major infrastructural problems with these games. That’s not what I’m responding to here. I’m responding to the journalists who covered the minor things they encountered without connecting them to the bigger picture (for the often judgemental and ill-informed American public), particularly when there are many bigger issues at stake. I’m not a Russia apologist by any standards. I just found that the coverage erred on schadenfreude and labeled an entire people, rather than their government or the IOC, as at fault.

      1. Nick says:

        Hey, I really enjoyed your article.

        I do see ZONKERINGENEVA’s point in his reaction to the article. However, I feel like there is a nice line between both of your points where Russia DOES need to improve in many ways.

        However to Zonkeringeneva:
        Sochi budgeted 12 billion dollars of investment within the last 7 years, but blew out of that budget past 50 billion. They had no world class athletic facilities and had to start from scratch with all of its equipment. In this point, I’ll have to agree with Nina, regardless of how she intends to work it. Some people REALLY need to suck it up. There are some ridiculous reviews out there and those people should really understand that it’s not that bad.

        Both of you have really good points, it’s not to undermine or forget that Russia is a great place, or the Sochi games are indeed under-prepared compared to elsewhere. Nina is just making an article in response to people bashing the hard work that’s been put into the 2014 games.

        Thanks for reading,


      2. Hi Nick, thanks for reading and commenting! I agree that it’s a nuanced situation and it’s nice to have readers like you who appreciate all of them. 🙂

    2. Peter says:

      Really good response, sir..

  3. cpoppalardo says:

    LOVE this!! It’s funny and brilliant!! Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks for reading, Carly! 🙂

  4. SarahE22 says:

    This is soo great!! I studied abroad in Italy and have traveled everywhere from Israel, to Budapest, to Lisbon, Barcelona, and so on, and I experienced each of these culture differences (notice I didn’t say issues) while abroad. At first they were slightly shocking, especially the toilet thing, but I survived.

    I was appreciative and embarrassed all at the same to live in the US and to never have to worry about these issues. We could ALL learn a great deal about how spoiled we are. While my fellow study abroaders were waiting for the elevator or using the escalator, I used the stairs (and always won), I now turn off the shower in between lathering, rinsing, and repeating (saving some water for the fishies), and plan to buy a small car when I graduate, because they are just way more energy efficient, not to mention cuter!

    Thanks for writing this article!

    1. Hi Sarah, thanks for commenting! I agree that we often don’t realize how great we have it here in the US, and that lends us to thinking that our way is the only way. Studying and living in other countries has made me a better person, and its an experience I wish for everyone. I’m glad to see that there are so many articles like this one popping up lately, and that I’m not the only one embarrassed by Westerners’ behavior at the Sochi Olympics. Thanks again for reading. 🙂

  5. Polina says:

    Thank you! Exactly how I was feeling all those days!

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