The Sochi Olympics are supposed to give an enormous boost to Russia's global image and influence. After seeing how welcoming and modern Russia could be, who could hang on to stereotypes from the Cold War era or the mafia-blighted 1990s, or to more recent misconceptions of medieval, religion-driven tyranny?
If the lavatory incident is any indication, the games' organizers could end up flushing those ambitions down the toilet.
It all started Jan. 20 with a tweet by BBC journalist Steve Rosenberg. "Seeing double in the gentlemen's loo at the Olympic Biathlon Center," he wrote over a picture of two full, sit-down toilets installed side by side, with no partition between them. The picture was so absurd Rosenberg thought it merited a second tweet: "Just to make clear, this is not photoshopped. You can see my reflection in the flusher."
The photo, retweeted more than 1,000 times, was an instant sensation on social networks. Russians immediately produced dozens of collages spoofing the "too close for comfort" arrangement. More serious questions were asked, too, about the intentions of the state-controlled natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, which financed the construction of the $1.5 billion biathlon center. "Was the state company trying to save money?" journalist Natalia Telegina asked on Slon.ru.
At that point, the Sochi Games' organizers still had a chance to come up with a more or less reasonable explanation. They could have said that the partitions were coming, that this was their answer to accusations of official homophobia, that they had made a silly planning mistake. Almost anything would have been better than what actually followed.
Elena Greenberg of the Olympic Committee's press service responded with a post on Facebook: "At the request of competition organizers it was decided to convert one of the toilets at the stadium into a storage cupboard (there are plenty of toilets but they needed more storage space), so they started clearing away the partition and the toilets. With all due respect, Steve photographed the ill-starred toilets after the partition, but not yet the toilets, had been removed. All the journalist needed to do was ask stadium workers exactly what he was seeing. All that journalists needed to do was call and ask us."
The same story, complete with pictures of the converted lavatory, now containing three chests of drawers and no toilets, was soon posted on LiveJournal by blogger Sergei Nikitsky. "What is most important for Internet users and a BBC journalist? To create a sensation out of nothing and to humiliate the efforts of the organizers, namely our country!" Nikitsky wrote.
Probably unaware of this public relations counteroffensive, legislator Svetlana Zhurova, a ranking member of the ruling United Russian party and a former speed-skating champion, came up with her own explanation: The double toilets were meant for disabled athletes competing in the Paralympic Games. Zhurova has now deleted the original tweet, but one can still read her increasingly evasive replies to flabbergasted bloggers asking how exactly the arrangement could benefit a disabled person. Soon, Zhurova was sick of the subject. "There was only one such toilet and it has been dismantled," she tweeted.
That, like the storage room story, turned out to be untrue. Czech biathlete Gabriela Soukalova and Frenchman Martin Fourcade each posted pictures of themselves sitting on similar twin toilets during last year's test competitions in Sochi. Then, on Feb. 1, the Associated Press discovered another double lavatory at the security screening facility outside the Main Press Center. This time, the reporter made sure to ask the organizers for comment, but none was forthcoming.
It would have been easy to tell the truth in the first place, and probably not hard to install partitions. Instead the organizers turned twin-toilet hunting into a sport -- and got the story onto the pages of the Washington Post, the New York Times and a host of other news outlets.
The harmless tweet has now turned into a public relations nightmare for the organizers. A defensive attitude toward the rest of the world and a misplaced belief that the media can be fed lies with impunity can, and will, hurt Russia's reputation as an Olympic host. One should hope no similar fiasco will follow the Feb. 1 tweet by Canadian snowboarder Sebastien Toutant. In yet another Sochi toilet, the athlete took a picture of an infographic that appears to ban toilet-fishing and other mysterious activities. After the first toilet story, this one, too, got plenty of attention.
The organizers have not reacted. Could they be still thinking of a witty but patriotic repartee? One hopes not, lest Sochi go down in history as the Toilet Olympics.
(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @Bershidsky.)
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