'What can you do? It's Russia'

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SOCHI, Russia -- When I arrived in Sochi from halfway around the world, my room wasn't ready. They were housing us in an isolated compound of dormitories. The reception room spilled over with reporters from every corner of the known sport-o-sphere. They were waiting for rooms. Their laptops were cracked open, and they were typing up their personal agonies. Things looked bleak.

I joined the line to check in. "See that guy over there?" The man ahead of me was pointing to someone teetering on the arm of a sofa, trying to stay awake. "It's been three hours, and he's still waiting for a room key." The man identified himself as a reporter with the Arizona Republic, and said he had just flown in from Phoenix. "You gotta be Zen about all this," he cautioned. Although I knew Phoenix to be subtropical, just like this Winter Olympics city, five years in Russia had convinced me that a calm Arizona attitude had no application in Eastern Europe.

I barged to the front of the line, where a woman named Katya leaned in closely. She said, "We can't give you your room because the builders haven't finished that building yet." Adventure is possible only in uncertainty, and this makes Russia a place of great exploit and escapade. I looked around the reception area at all those sportswriters in their Zen and their suffering. They didn't know how good they had it.

I headed to Arkady's place. He and I were friends from Moscow, where I used to live and work. Arkady wasn't the only one who had migrated to Sochi for the Olympics, here to make quick business. His business was solving problems for people, though his own affairs could have used some looking after. In the morning, after the screams had woken me up, a sewage pipe burst in Arkady's kitchen.

Arkady meandered downstairs, which now smelled less like a rose than it could have. I read aloud, scanning reports from my colleagues, who were deep into their initial Sochi adventures. Someone had nearly fallen through an uncovered manhole. Two TV repair guys walked in on a woman as she was exiting a hotel-room shower. One dorm had been evacuated at dawn for no communicated reason. Arkady frowned. "Come on," he said. "Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. Nobody's perfect. This kind of stuff happens everywhere."

I countered: "You would expect the Olympics to be a step above, wouldn't you? Russia wants to change international perception -- not reinforce it."

We got into Arkady's S Class and he fired up the engine. "Uh, have you ever been to Detroit?" he asked. We cruised out of his garage, past a few stray dogs that were nibbling bugs from one another's fur. We made the highway. Cops were standing on the side of the road, stationed every 50 yards. I guess they were on the lookout for terrorists. Ours was the only car on the road. It felt as though all traffic had been cleared for us, as if we were jogging with the Olympic flame. The Games were about to start. I watched as Olympic Stadium and the main Olympic hockey venue rose in the near distance, moons on the horizon. "Yeah, I've been to Detroit," I said to Arkady. "But they're not hosting the Olympics."

Sochi is no Detroit, though there has been plenty of effort expended to equate one with the other. You think it's bad here? Well, you have it just as bad over there. That's what these Olympics are becoming, a sell job between one view of the world and another. The central question is: Why does Russia bear the weight of the world? China has a far more shameful human-rights record, yet the Beijing Olympics, six years ago, hardly faced the intensity of international criticism now leveled at these Sochi Games.

It all goes back to the Cold War. In the 1990s, after the fall of the USSR, Russia developed a crush on the United States, its new standard for global influence and quality of life. America was modern Russia's hopeful, idealistic -- unrealistic -- view of what it itself could become. As the millennium turned, so did this attitude. The U.S. spurned its awkward suitor, and Russia grew disenchanted. Then President Vladimir Putin appeared, telling Russians they had a reason to be proud of themselves, that they didn't require American affection to go about their business. Since then, relations -- not just politically, but socially as well -- have turned foul. It feels like an unsolvable quarrel.

For many Americans, Russia is the stepchild held to a higher standard than the biological child. We forgive many things in ourselves, yet allow very little to escape notice in Russians. Certainly, Sochi is experiencing its logistical challenges, but didn't New Jersey Transit just fumble transporting everyone from the Super Bowl? Isn't New York City's subway system a dilapidated disgrace? By the way, nearly all Aeroflot planes are new. The food isn't great on board, but at least they don't gouge you for a pack of crackers. Russia is not "better" than America; it is just another place in the world.

Likewise, many Russians could benefit from a broader comprehension of American things. Their common view holds the U.S. to be a misguided place of school shootings, geopolitical interventionists and climatological disaster, a nation veering wildly off course. For them, this just reaffirms Russia's necessary place in the world, as conservative standard-bearer. This attitude, misguided by "official media," only corrupts the mind.

All of this has plenty to do with the Olympics that officially begin with Friday's opening ceremonies.

Putin's reign (what else could it be called?) these past 14 years has turned Russia from a quasi-banana republic into a more stable nation that operates on the principles of a banana republic. It's confusing. But it's political, which we shouldn't confuse with the social. The mistake both Russians and foreigners often make is equating Putin with Russia -- not all Russians agree with the country's anti-gay law or other controversial policies. Putin is not Russia. He is just in power for now. That's why previous calls from some in the West to boycott these Olympics are off base.

These Games are laced with rhetoric from both sides of an established position, which hardly makes any sense. Unlike the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist United States, Russia and America are not natural enemies. Rhetoric is the only reason we should dislike one another now.

The small complaints about these Olympics won't abate. What can you do? It's Russia. That's what people will say when the bathroom floods or the waitress forgets the beer. It's a fine explanation, an appeal for understanding, but that's just what Russian authorities have designed these Olympics to overcome. Russia wants to hold itself to a higher standard now. Everywhere you turn, you hear that the Olympics have been prepared on a "very high level." Yes, the bobsled track is beautiful, and so is the Rosa Khutor ski resort, though there is plenty else besides that inspires little confidence. In Sochi, there is no single perception.

These are not the Olympics of the bad media hotel. No one cares about that. Sadly, however, these are not going to be an Olympics of athletic competition; there is too much that overshadows the sports. Hopefully, these will not be the Olympics of logistical collapse or, far worse, terrorism. Ultimately, these probably will be the Olympics of perception, of modern ideological combat.

Let's see how these Games play out before we rush to judgment. All along, all the Russian state wanted was a chance to show that Russia is a modern, forward-looking country. Over the next two weeks, Russia will have this chance. So as I sit here in my dorm room, I ask myself: Can't we all just get along?

Brett Forrest is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow him on Twitter ( @brett_forrest).

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