What Sochi News Coverage Can Tell Catholics

American journalists are ungracious whiners. That was my original conclusion based on the torrent of gripes about substandard accommodations in Sochi.

I understand that Americans are grossed out by yellow water and toilets that don’t flush paper. But for people whose job is to keep us all informed, the reporters seemed surprisingly unaware that these conditions are normal for a great part of the world’s population. Having lived in three different countries where no-paper septic systems were standard, my eyes were certainly rolling when a picture of a Sochi hotel room (which included a sign asking guests not to flush paper) went viral. And while I can enjoy the humorous side of cross-cultural awkwardness just as much as the next person, it also seemed like there was rather a mean-spirited tone to this coverage.

I started to think that Julia Ioffe might be right when she suggested in the New Republic that we might be enjoying the screw-ups a little bit too much. Lots of countries have experienced hiccups when it comes to hosting the Olympics, and usually we’re fairly mellow about it. Mitt Romney was excoriated even for mentioning that the preparations for the 2012 Olympics were not completely, one-hundred-percent up to speed. For Russia, though, we throw out the etiquette manual and commence immediately with jeers and gloating. “Idiot Russians! Do they not have plumbers in this country? I’ve stayed in campgrounds that are nicer than this so-called resort!” And so forth.

No doubt I’m particularly sensitive to this as someone who has lived in the former USSR. Having spent two years in Uzbekistan (and traveled to other countries in the region) I look at the region a lot more than just dictatorial strong-men giving kickbacks to their toady underlings. Those do exist, of course, and I won’t spend even an instant defending them. I have seen the effect of repressive regimes on a struggling population, and had personal conversations with people whose loved ones were “relocated” by Stalin, never to be heard from again. I also know, however, that ordinary Russians are hungry for the world to see that they still have a history and culture that justify attention and national pride. They do.

I hoped the Olympics, for all its profligacy and waste, would at least give them a chance to remember. The Olympics typically present a somewhat Disnified representation of a particular culture, but that’s not necessarily bad. (Remember the section from the Atlanta opening ceremonies that dealt with slavery in a nuanced and meaningful way? Or the time when the Salt Lake Olympics considered at length the complexities of Mormon polygamy? Me neither.) It can be good on occasion to refocus on the best of what a culture has to offer. And while Western journalists should by all means feel at liberty to write about corruption and injustice, it’s also reasonable to ask them to use an event like the Olympics (which is supposed to be about international co-operation and goodwill) to appreciate some of the positives in the country that opens its doors to offer hospitality.

Unfortunately our American representatives seemed almost gleeful in their eagerness to find fault. They showed up with their noses pre-wrinkled, only in the mood to moan about the extreme deficiency of accommodations the local population would surely regard as lavish. During the opening ceremonies the commentators were heavy and grim, while my Twitter feed was a river of snark. Only the barest mention was made of the odd little fact that the show itself was absolutely stunning, and certainly the most beautiful Olympic display that I have ever watched.

It all made me sad. I won’t lose sleep over the feelings of Vladimir Putin, and I do understand the eagerness to prevent the Sochi Olympics from becoming a “political win” for him. But there are 143 million other Russians whose tax dollars amply funded the games, and they deserved better. Still, the savaging of Russia’s Olympic efforts was instructive insofar as it made me consider in a new light how Catholics should approach relevantly similar problems. We know too well what it’s like to struggle with a media that focuses a laser beam on a few negative episodes (Borgia popes! Pedophile priests!), while relegating the many, many positives to the remote margins.

Sometimes silly coverage should just be denounced for what it is. With Pope Benedict we got very used to explaining that most of the headlines they found in his addresses were almost entirely inaccurate. No, the Church doesn’t endorse Holocaust denial. No, it still isn’t okay to use condoms. No, we don’t view Islam as a religion of violent criminals.

It’s much harder when the allegations are actually true. There is a reason why the abuse scandals have damaged the Church’s reputation so gravely. Many of the hideous allegations against priests have actually turned out to be true, and that truth is genuinely appalling. Unfortunately, some people have been so deeply scarred by those episodes that there isn’t very much we can do except pray for God’s grace to heal them and soften their hearts.

For others, the best apologia may be to put the ugly episodes in the proper context. Fr. Robert Barron’s Catholicism series is a wonderful example of the kind of presentation that can help people to realize that the Church is much larger than any particular defective representative. Even Borgia popes can start to look like a minor episode in light of the incalculable good the Church has wrought in the world.

As Russia’s example shows, however, even beauty is not a panacea. Some people will always refuse to be impressed. This is why we must regularly re-commit ourselves to representing the best of our faith and of Catholic culture. We should see every smear as a new invitation to be a light to the world. It will be interesting to see whether Russia’s efforts over the next few weeks will succeed in winning some goodwill, if not from the commentariat then at least from ordinary people who can watch them for entertainment and not just for the political angles. Sometimes persuasion takes time.

As Catholics we have literally all the time in the world to win souls back for Christ, and we can proceed with confidence that we enjoy the protection of the Holy Spirit. These are advantages that, in the long run, cannot be overshadowed even by the obtuseness of an American journalist.

Rachel Lu


Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

  • Ita Scripta Est

    Why no mention of the all out culture imperialism being waged on Russia, by the “free” West?

    • DD

      Like what?

      • Ita Scripta Est

        Used google lately?

        • DD

          What do I google?

          • Ita Scripta Est

            DD, Crisis can only handle one obtuse commentator (i.e.The Abaum).

            • TheAbaum

              Obtuse is not respecting the moderator’s injunction to cease and desist, and then starting on other posters.

            • DD

              Why so cryptic?

  • Ashamed in NE

    The coverage of Sochi by US “journalists”, “TV news readers”, “sports reporters”, etc. has been most notable for is juvenile tone, ignorant comments and complete lack of real value. Apparently, everyone involved with the coverage has decided to reproduce the juvenile, culturally ignorant and crude behavior that has been the hallmark of the current occupier of the White House. What a disgrace.

  • Adam__Baum

    “I also know, however, that ordinary Russians are hungry for the world
    to see that they still have a history and culture that justify attention
    and national pride. They do.”


    There’s way too much of this type of hagiography in the resurgent Russian Nationalism. It’s hard to get to excited by complaints of a short-shrift of a “history and culture” that embraces the man who might be the greatest mass murderer in history as heroic. (I notice the absence of any criticism of the atheist monsters of the Russian Revolution by the normal cheerleaders for the state that eagerly dismiss any and all deficiencies of the architects of the American Revolution.)

    The worst part of this is that those who wax for Stalin don’t seem to understand that it was the resolve and vitality of the ordinary Russian Soldier, and the brutality of the Russian winter that repelled the Nazis, and “Uncle Joe” was duped by Hitler. The Panzers were stopped by the cold and an overextended supply line, not Soviet tactical brilliance.

    “But there are 143 million other Russians whose tax dollars amply funded the games, and they deserved better.”

    The lesson to be learned here is how centralized command and control will make lavish expenditures on bread and circuses, and do what all elaborate state-sponsored Rube Goldberg devices do-ignore the gritty details of life, such as the effective removal of excrement and waste. One of the finest testaments to the good work done by my Parish and Diocese in constructing a new Church, is the presence of bathrooms that are not only perfectly functional, but remain spotlessly clean week after week.

    The problem here isn’t that the media exposes these deficiencies, but they have been ignoring similar deficiencies at home, such as those associated with Obamacare. They aren’t wrong in Russia, they are hypocrites at home.

    What the Russians deserved was to not have their RUBLES conscripted for construction of an elaborate venue that has no lasting value other than to serve as pyramid to the greatness of their Pharaoh-for a few weeks no less-and does nothing to remedy the indignities and deprivations the average Russian faces.

    “No doubt I’m particularly sensitive to this as someone who has lived in
    the former USSR. Having spent two years in Uzbekistan (and traveled to
    other countries in the region) I look at the region a lot more than just
    dictatorial strong-men giving kickbacks to their toady underlings.
    Those do exist, of course, and I won’t spend even an instant defending

    Fine, but that’s a bit of a strawman. Who would defend it? It’s the underestimation of the effects of these things that is of concern to me-indeed Putin is the ne plus ultra of “dictatorial strong-men giving kickbacks to their toady underlings”.

    • Rachel Lu

      If we just want to tell off Russia, we should have skipped the Olympics. To go and then be peevish about it is just churlish and rude, like agreeing to attend a wedding but then making snarky remarks throughout and tweeting about how much you hate the bride’s make-up. The American-savvy Russians and Russia-savvy Americans I know are to a person anti-Putin and disapproving of all the corruption and waste surrounding the Olympics, but they’re also disgusted with the juvenile attitude of the American press. Russians may not be thrilled with every element of the Sochi Olympics, but that doesn’t mean they appreciate Americans adding insult to injury by spitting on their dearly-bought party.

      • TheAbaum

        Who is “we”? Does the legacy media speak for you, because they sure don’t speak for me.

      • Objectivetruth

        I believe it’s the liberal press such as CNN, MSNBC that are taking subtle, back door pot-shots at the Russians because of their LGBT policies.

    • Ita Scripta Est

      Yep Russian nationalism is the problem well said Abaum. Of course it wouldn’t be a post from you without a reference to the Founding Traitors.

      • Augustus

        Traitor to who? Are you a Tory loyalist? At least that would explain your hostility to Whigs…

      • TheAbaum

        Thanks for the free rent.

    • Watosh

      We do like to denigrate those who don’t say agree with something we say. Remember how the country went on a binge of denouncing the French because they were reluctant to sign on to a UN Resolution giving us an unequivocal green light to invade Iraq.

      Now the cold did help stop the Nazi advance, however consider what the Russians did despite being ruled by the despotic communists. They relocated most of their factories during a war back to their eastern areas, they developed a tank that was as good, if not better than the Nazi tanks, they developed a fighter plane that could hold its own against the Nazi fighters, they fought tenaciously at Stalingrad, and launched a devastating counterattack. The Germans concentrated the bulk of their forces in the Russian theater, the Americans and British did not face anywhere near the numbers of troops that the Russians did. An overwhelming number of German Army casualties were inflicted by the Russians compared to those inflicted by American forces in the West. They developed the batteries of rocket artillery during the war. They did this even under a horrible regime that governed them. The Russians put the first satellite in orbit. They established a station in space. They have produced brilliant mathematicians and scientists, as well as great composers. The thing is they are not ignorant, backward louts as some would like to depict them. And we talk about how we won the west, at the same time the Russians expanded to the pacific over thousands and thousands of miles.

      So why do we have to put others down so much? I think it demeans us to do this.

      • TheAbaum

        I’m seeing more whitewashing of the Soviet era, in my limited viewing than what the author describes. Of course, I have no interest in the Olympics, so I might have an inadequate sample.

  • msmischief

    ” the reporters seemed surprisingly unaware that these conditions are normal for a great part of the world’s population”

    Countries where such conditions are normal should perhaps spend their money on amending that situation rather than the Olympics.

    • TheAbaum

      I’ve only watched a small bit of the Olympics, (too many sports rely on judges rather than finish lines to determine the results for my tastes and I’m too old and too married to spend time enjoying the aesthetics of ladies figure skating the way most men do) so I’ve accepted the idea I missed something that author saw.

      Apparently not all the coverage has been “churlish and rude”. Some has been a “pivotal experiment” in whitewashing.


      And Meredith Viera found time to lament the end of the USSR.


    • droolbritannia

      Sometimes the reason for those toilets is not that the country is poor in money, but poor in water resources. The toilets are low-flow because of drought conditions being normal or because water has to be delivered to certain locations when rainfall is sub-par.

      I’ve been in places where the ‘toilet’ was a pipe in a concrete floor; where the toilets (the plumbing) didn’t work in the whole city because the municipal water supply was turned off due to contamination (locals were advised to go out to relatives in the countryside and live there until the emergency passed; foreigners relied on bottled water delivered daily – for more than two years); where the ‘toilet’ was indeed a toilet, but was outdoors, with no walls around it, and nothing, really, more than a seat over a hole in the ground. And then there are those places where the toilet still is an outhouse. You can find apartments in Eastern Europe and Central Europe that were built in the days of ‘water closets’ being a closet entered outside, through the balcony – and still is. And you can find blocks of flats that were built with one bathroom per floor, accessed on the landing and shared by 4 or 5 families.

      Sometimes, spending money on the Olympics (or the World Cup, etc.) is what brings in money to build up the economy to pay higher wages to people who can then improve the standards of their homes. When John Paul II came to the city I live in (Wrocław in Poland) for a Eucharistic Congress, suddenly we had a beautified town centre (restored to 19th-century glory; decades of coal grime scrubbed off, facades painted, etc.); we had phone booths all over the city (instead of a few in major post offices). Museums and monuments and public buildings got face-lifts, roads were repaired; we got a tourist information centre in the city square, clean public toilets in parks and at public transport arteries – it was like in one year the city advanced 20 years in cleanliness, attractiveness, services and amenities – all for ONE Eucharistic Congress.

      But the Congress put the city on the map again as a hub for business and tourism: the city gets richer and richer, new building is going on all the time, new shops and restaurants and foreign investment daily. Back in the ’90s, the mayor’s aim was to make this city the Frankfurt (business centre) of Poland, and to do that, he had to attract investors, and to attract investors, we had to lay out big money to make things comfortable for events that would attract world attention and many visitors. It has been a success story for this city. (I’ve even got not only a new toilet, but a whole new bathroom since then :-).

  • tamsin

    It sounds like many in the media are more interested in damning Russia for Putin’s recent edict banning homosexual propagandizing, scoring points at home, rather than damning him for all the other damnable things he does. They are using this opportunity to further the international goal of elevating sexual expression to the level of a positive human right.

    Christians are a logical target for punishment for the human rights abuse of teaching children that homosexual relations are wrong.

    So: gays, and toilets. In that order. With a little bit of regret over the effects of the “pivotal experiment” of communism. The media are chickens. One wonders what the coverage would be like if Putin had set forth an edict requiring the teaching of “nontraditional sexual relations”. Would it bother anybody that it was an edict?

  • publiusnj

    Good news about the Church (and its mission to youth) that will not get much attention from the press: Catholic high school graduates graduate college at DOUBLE the rate of public high school graduates and even at significantly higher rates than graduates of other private high schools. Source: http://cnsnews.com/news/article/terence-p-jeffrey/dept-ed-catholic-hs-students-twice-likely-graduate-college

    • TheAbaum

      Excellent. Of course if they cohabitate at a much lesser rate than public high school graduates, then we’ll really have cause to snap our suspenders with pride.

      • publiusnj

        I do not disagree with your point but I also do not know that the UN would consider that worth note given their view that abortion is another area the Church needs to bend on if it is to be deemed no longer at war on children. (Huhh??) Even the UN, though, would have to admit that college graduation rates are relevant.

  • mountainangel

    I am sad that the American media has been so trivial and pathetic. They did not treat the Olympics in China this way…..Media from the very beginning of the Opening Ceremony has done nothing but whine. I have been to Russia and enjoyed every minute of my trip, The Russian people have put on a beautiful Olympics, and I for one have enjoyed the games very much. I am ashamed of the way news channels have portrayed this beautiful event, and as for the people of Russia. Bravo for a great moment in time……..

  • richard_fossey

    Your essay is right on the mark. I also noticde unseemly praise in the NY Times for the Russian women who disrupted the cathedral in Moscow. The Times presented them as if they were civil rights activists, when all they did was disrupt a Russian Orthodox religious service. I got the impression that the Times’s lavish coverage of these women’s U.S. visit was perhaps calculated to embarrass the Russians during the Olympics. I found myself feeling sorry for the Russians, who are understandably proud to be hosting the Olympics.

  • Louis

    It’s worse than that. Putin is no Ogre and Washington, D.C. is becoming intolerable. The Middle East is controlled by Muslims for a reason and that is because Eastern and Western Christians could not get along. Europe and the U.S are headed in the same direction.

  • mike_g

    A very interesting comparison, tone of coverage of Olympics in China vs. Russia: both have the communist history, yet very different media coverage, as others have indicated. I think it is due to the homosexual agenda: who didn’t see the pre-olympics “conditioning” stories in the past several months? All pre-denouncing Russia for their draconian attitude toward homosex (and government largesse). We (journalists included) were all being prepared to boo loudly at any misstep….