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In defense of Sochi 'whining'

Published February 13, 2014 9:19 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Now that we've all seen journalists' tweets about unfinished/lousy/weird/stray-animal-inhabited accommodations at the Sochi Olympics, a new genre has risen from the rubble: Critiques of said tweets as sheltered, poverty-oblivious, ugly-American whining.

Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent Margaret Coker compares the tweeted Sochi shortcomings to her accommodations in war zones and assorted other miserable places.

"In Afghanistan, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, or even after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, many of us Western journalists went for weeks without a shower, let alone the sight of porcelain, dirty or clean, and made do instead with open air latrines," she writes.

Stephen Mattson, on the faith-based site Sojourners, accuses posters of making fun of stuff that's normal for all but the world's most privileged.

"The same images that we derisively mock are the ones that millions of people are envying — wishing they could experience such lavish accommodations," he says.

Spud Hilton at the San Francisco Chronicle argues that *real* travelers don't get fazed by uncovered manholes, half-built hotels or brown water. These are funny stories, "not something you have to whine to the world about."

OK. Before I was a reporter, I was a "traveler." I saw lots of countries and used many types of toilets and had uncomfortable trips. I once had to dive into a stranger's moving car on the freeway to escape a crash outside Shanghai. Got stranded in a drug-dealer's house in Marrakesh. Spent a night on my honeymoon covered in urine and bug guts in the Namibian desert (and not for kink). Broke a rib falling into a garbage gutter. Fled SARS. Slept in a one-room "motel" with a dozen beds shoved together hillbilly-style, no front door and a rat in my backpack.

And if I were covering the Olympics, I'd totally tweet about face-eating water in the hotel sink.

Observing isn't necessarily whining. It's what journalists are supposed to do — especially when they're stepping off the plane into the larger story of Russia's strange execution of its hosting duties. It's not like covering a war; Russia invited this audience. There already were questions as to whether it was ready, from security issues to LGBT persecution to corruption that jacked up the highest price tag by far for any Olympics, winter or summer, in history.

That's a legitimate story.

If the first thing I see for all that extravagance is a floorless hotel, you bet I'll tweet a picture. These aren't "diatribes," as Coker calls them — they're quirky blips. The topic took on some overly dramatic buzz, but it's more baffling to me that fellow journalists would rather see reporters in Sochi toe the Putin line and ignore signs of dysfunction just to seem world-wise. Some posts are whiny and ignorant (shut up about the toilet paper, people). But mostly these are goofy peeks at a noteworthy boondoggle.

No, caustic water isn't funny in poverty. But it's pretty funny in a supposedly modern hotel built on a massive budget to show off to the world.

— Erin Alberty







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