There are increasingly worrying signs that Russia may not be totally prepared for the Winter Olympics, which officially kick off in the resort city of Sochi on Friday. It's worth comparing that to the lead-up to another major sporting event in a developing country that can sometimes struggle with large infrastructure projects: the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
It turns out that there were similarly dire warning that South Africa was not going to be ready for its big international sporting event. And those warnings turned out to be mostly false; the games went fine. That's the good news for Russia.
The bad news for Russia is that warnings of South African unreadiness mostly came weeks or months beforehand, not days, and by the time things kicked off in mid-June, South Africa had fixed the problems. Russia has not, it appears, fixed its problems.
To put this in context, here's an alarmed-sounding February 2010 report that the official soccer federation, FIFA, might not have its hotels ready with "only" three months left before the games:
FIFA head Jerome Valcke went on to detail all sorts of reasons that, as he put it, "At this stage, we have 700,000 tickets still to sell, at this stage I can make a list of things that aren't ready for the World Cup." His quotes seem to indicate grave concern and the coverage around this time reflects that view that South Africa just did not have it together.
Concerns of South African unpreparedness got so bad that, in March, a senior government official insinuated to the Wall Street Journal that the fears were being engineered by "known and unknown sources that are hell-bent" on hurting the country's international image. "Who is besmirching South Africa?" the official asked, going on to suggest that the criticism implied South Africa was not as good as other countries. "We think we're on a world standard, like other places," he said.
That's another interesting parallel between the Russian and South African games: a sense of being unfairly criticized by a world, particularly a Western world, not ready to accept Russia or South Africa as a peer. The idea of Western countries looking down their noses at South Africa is especially distasteful, given that South Africa was a victim of first Western colonialism and then Western backing for the apartheid government. Maybe that helped measure the criticism.
There is not much of anything measuring Western criticism of Russia's Olympic preparedness, or Russia-as-Russia. This also has clear historical roots, given the enmity between Western countries and Russia, which has never been anywhere close to resolved. And there is an unmistakable hint of glee at seeing Russia fail, which is not exactly in the spirit of the Olympic games.
"There's a fine line between fair criticism and schadenfreude, and the Western press has been largely well on the side of the latter," the New Republic's Julia Ioffe, who is not soft on Putin's Russia, wrote today. "I'd also argue that there's something chauvinistic, even Russophobic in it."
There's probably something to that. Western readers love to click on stories confirming their biases about Russia, and there is very little disincentive in the West for criticizing Russia. So it's certainly within the realm of possibility that Russia is being held to an ungenerous standard because of attitudes toward Russia. It's also simultaneously possible that Russia is legitimately unprepared.
Sometimes, though, Moscow is its own worst enemy. At a news conference Thursday, a Russian official responsible for Olympic preparations told reporters that he knew the bad media coverage was just an anti-Russian Western plot because a secret video camera they'd installed in a reporter's hotel room shower had showed the reporter running the water all day.