5 ways to judge the Sochi Olympics

The Olympics create their own special magic. But there are so many ways that things could go wrong in Russia.

The 2014 Winter Olympics effectively begin today in Sochi, a subtropical Russian resort town, and so far the big event has been griping. Legitimate griping, in most cases. After seven years and $51 billion, and despite it being a prestige project for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Sochi doesn't appear ready for prime time.

"Toxic sludge filling washbasins" in half-finished hotel rooms is bad, says Katie Baker at Grantland. But "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!'" Once the Games start, "the glint of gold medals blinding everyone to anything else," she adds, reporters will have better things to talk about than their cold showers and missing doorknobs.

That is, unless Russia pours fuel on the fires of discontent. On Russian radio Wednesday, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the complaints about poisonous tap water and packs of stray dogs entering unlockable rooms as commonplace differences of taste: "Everywhere someone doesn't like the food, someone doesn't like the hotel, someone thinks the mattress is too hard, etc."

Vladimir Yakunin, the president of top Sochi Games contractor Russian Railways, suggested in a blog post that the "Western media" was reveling in anti-Russian bias by focusing on the hotels instead of the long-completed Olympic facilities. But Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister in charge of the Olympic preparations, had the most memorable response, accusing the media of trying to sabotage the games — and presenting this as his proof:

We have surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the shower, direct the nozzle at the wall, and then leave the room for the whole day. [The Wall Street Journal]

An aide stepped in and pulled Kozak away before a Wall Street Journal reporter could follow up, but the implication was clear: Russia had hidden cameras trained on reporters' showers. ("In Russia, bathroom mirror watches you!" quipped TechCrunch's Gregory Ferenstein, an apparent fan of Yakov Smirnoff.) Kozak's spokesman later denied that there are any surveillance cameras in hotel rooms.

The U.S. State Department isn't so sure, though, warning that American visitors to Sochi should have "no expectation of privacy, even in their hotel rooms," relays NBC News' Richard Engel, in a report on how his smartphone and two laptops were hacked almost immediately after he got to Russia.

But is that any way to judge an Olympic Games — by the accommodations for journalists and the privacy rights of visitors and athletes? Probably not. At least not if anything interesting happens in Sochi. So here are five ways we might better judge the success of the Sochi Olympics:

1. Will the opening ceremony top China's?
The Sochi Games have already set one world record — most expensive Olympics ever — but the Russians will be facing another challenge before the competitions begin in earnest: Can the Sochi opening ceremony top Beijing's tour de force six years ago. The parallels are rather striking: Beijing 2008 was China's big coming-out party as a world power, and this is Russia's first Olympics since the fall of the Soviet Union. Both nations, to some extent, are trying to move past their decades of communism.

The opening ceremony is the only part of the Games some people watch, so Russia has a lot riding on this. And it is pulling out all the stops — as far as anyone can tell. There will probably be classical music and ballet dancers, definitely fireworks, and maybe a reunion performance by the disbanded pop group t.A.T.u.

Above all, though, the opening ceremony is "a time-honored tradition of national pride wherein host countries very literally make a show of one-upping whichever nation held the previous Games," says Alex Fitzpatrick at Time. "Who's Russia trying to beat? China. China's opening ceremony was outstanding."

2. Will Team USA win the medal race?
We may cheer for particular athletes or closely follow certain events, but when all is said and done, you are rooting for your home team. And the tally of which country won the most medals, or the most gold medals, is one of the prominent records for any Olympics. Team USA won the medal table in London two years ago, both in total medals and golds, and won total medals in the 2010 Winter Olympics, in Vancouver (Canada and Germany both won more golds).

The Wall Street Journal is predicting that Norway will win the overall medal count this year, and probably eke out a gold-medal-total win, too. (Online bookmakers have the U.S. winning the overall medal count but losing the golds to Norway, according to SB Nation.) Germany, Canada, and Russia are also in the running. For casual Olympics watchers, this may be the race that defines the 2014 Games.

3. Will Russia run out of snow?
The mountains around Vancouver are usually great for skiing in the winter, so you can sort of excuse Canadian Olympic organizers for being caught off-guard when unseasonable warm and dry weather in 2010 nearly derailed the last Winter Games. In Sochi, where temperatures could hit the 60s over the next 17 days, Russia has been working very, very hard to conserve, protect, and even make snow for the outdoor events up in the Caucasus Mountains.

"Due to the nature of these events, it is imperative that the mountain's snow conditions are in tip-top shape from the beginning to the end of the Games," says Kristen Rodman at AccuWeather. So Russia has created massive reservoirs of backup snow, brought in 450 industrial snow-making machines, and even employed Siberian Altai shamans to pray for snow.

Warmth isn't the only threat to the snow, either. "In extreme cold, when the [snow] machines are running at full tilt, sometimes the nucleating nozzles can freeze," says Henry Fountain in The New York Times. "When that happens, the droplets from the main nozzles no longer have seeds to help them freeze, so they come out of the machine as rain, which then freezes as it hits the ground, forming a solid layer of glare ice."

4. Will any gay athletes or activists be beaten or thrown in jail?
One thing that could put a big blot on the Games is "Russian disdain for gay rights," says the Toronto Star in an editorial, specifically the "blatant, state-sanctioned hostility to Russia's gay community."

Russian officials try to downplay it, but bigotry could leave an ugly stain on these Games. Some members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community could express their opposition publicly to laws that discriminate against them. Some may even be athletes. How Russian authorities respond will go a long way toward determining the legacy of Sochi. [Toronto Star]

If any "gay athletes, or visitors, are subject to assault or abuse," the Star concludes, "the IOC might well regret having brought the Olympics to Sochi."

One puzzling wrinkle in these concerns over the treatment of LGTB guests is the rumored appearance of t.A.T.u. The pop band, super-popular for a while in the mid-2000s, is made up of "two teenagers who semi-pretended to be lesbians," notes Time's Fitzpatrick.

5. Will anyone die?
Forget the medals and LGBT rights and everything else, says Will Leitch at Sports on Earth. "There's only one thing that could happen that these Olympics wouldn't be able to overcome. It's the thing everyone was fretting about in the first place." That is, of course, a terrorist attack. If Chechen separatists blow up a bus or gas an event or perpetrate some other deadly attack, he adds, "everything else will fade away."

No one will remember any of this, or any of the events themselves. This will be just the Games where that happened. And every Games moving forward will be viewed through that prism, and that prism only.

That's how these Olympics — and maybe all future Olympics — will be judged. Everything else is just a distraction. This is all that will matter. They're doing the best they can here. The only question is whether that will be enough. They've got 17 days to keep it together. The Games haven't even started yet, but the countdown has already begun. [Sports on Earth]


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