Sochi vs. Squaw Valley

An interesting analogy can be drawn between the Olympics of 2014 in Sochi, Russia and the Olympics of 1960 in Squaw Valley, California. It's one that leaves Sochi looking rather the worse for wear.

Sochi and Squaw Valley share two remarkable similarities.

In both Squaw Valley and Sochi, there was great controversy when the games were awarded because neither city was remotely qualified to host them. Each had only the most meager of facilities and would be required to build out the entire Olympics compound, including the infrastructure necessary to support it, from the ground up. Many Europeans were absolutely outraged that the International Olympic Committee would dare award the Olympics to the USA over Innsbruck, Austria, the front runner.

Many Russia apologists want to overlook the frenzied controversy surrounding the Squaw Valley games when they argue that there's nothing wrong with awarding the Olympics to unqualified countries and that criticism of Russia is exceptional and "russophobic." That's simply false. Sochi is being treated exactly the same way Squaw Valley was. With appropriate, rational skepticism that asks the host to prove it wrong.

Similarly, both cities were located in close proximity to summer resorts. In Squaw Valley's case, Lake Tahoe and in Sochi's the Black Sea. Their respective resort areas, at the foot of snow-covered mountains, both sported daytime temperatures in February well above freezing. Sochi carried this issue quite a bit further, since it actually has palm trees (Tahoe abounds in whispering pines) and is Russia's Miami, while Tahoe is seen by Americans more as a mountain resort closely associated with snow sports. This generated even more controversy, properly so in both cases, and appropriately more so in Sochi's case.

If the Russophile nutjobs think Sochi was somehow singled out for mistreatment, they should read Sports Illustrated's feature on the games as they opened in February 1960. The piece contains a long litany of problems and controversies and ends by pointing to "the horrible possibility emerged that California's first Winter Games might be a literal washout." When told that the Americans would nominate Squaw Valley as their candidate, the Chairman of the IOC told the Squaw Valley organizers that he thought the Americans had "taken leave of their senses." Russian complaints that they are being unfairly criticized are nothing but ignorant, propagandistic lies.

Skepticism of the Squaw Valley and Sochi bids was perfectly reasonable and logical. It is only Russian neo-Soviet paranoia that says otherwise. This speaks to Russia's greatest national fault: the pathological inability to acknowledge mistakes and reform, and the equally pathological impulse to destroy critics who bring bad news.

But there are also three vast and very important differences between Sochi and Squaw.

Squaw Valley staged only 27 medal events in just 4 sports. The bobsled event was so underdeveloped at that time that the Squaw organizers wouldn't even build a track. The scope of the Olympiad staged in Sochi this year is roughly four times that of Squaw Valley. There will be 98 medal events in 7 sports this year in Russia.

In other words, awarding the Olympics to unqualified Squaw was a far less significant risk than awarding them to Sochi, because Squaw was being asked to handle a task that was four times smaller in scope. The Winter Olympics was a much lesser deal then. Worries about what could happen by awarding Sochi the games were, in other words, absolutely reasonable and justified. There was nothing the least bit "russophobic" about raising them.
The second difference is terrorism: There wasn't any in Squaw Valley. It was an idyllic paradise perched amid America's grandest mountain range, the massive and majestic Sierra Nevada. There was no need to lock your doors at night, much less own a Kalashnikov to fight off marauding bands of separatist rebels. Because of the terrorism risk, Russia was forced to spend billions on security, money that achieves nothing in terms of improving the quality of the Olympic experience or investing in Russia's future, and the world was forced to place the lives of its athletes and spectators at extraordinary risk.

And then finally there's the biggest difference of all: the cost. The cost to build the venues and infrastructure in Squaw Valley was roughly $80 million, about half a billion dollars in today's money. Logically, since the scope of the Sochi games is four times that of Squaw, the cost should be four times higher.

But it's not. The cost of the Sochi build-out is one hundred times greater than that of Squaw.

Let me say that again: In converted, comparable money the cost of the Sochi games is one hundred times more than the cost of the Squaw Valley games.

Russia is paying four times more per event to host the games than China paid. The cost of staging the games in Russia is 20 times greater than a mission to Mars, and the cost is being paid directly and indirectly by the taxpayers of Russia. U.S. taxpayers didn't fund a single cent of the cost of Squaw Valley, it was paid for entirely by the residents of California who stood to directly benefit from the Olympic build-out.

Writing in The New Yorker, James Surowiecki tries to wrap his mind around the stunning cost being paid by Russia on what has turned out to be one of the great sports-related boondoggles in human history. He acknowledges at the outset what is obvious, that the enormous of the Sochi games is due in large part to blatant acts of fraud. Putin originally vowed the Sochi games would cost only $12 billion, a" mere" 24 times more than Squaw. Cost overruns came in at a factor of four.

What happened? What does this fraud mean for Russia? Surowiecki believes that "Sochi is emblematic of Russia's economy: conflicts of interest and cronyism are endemic." 

Surowiecki points out that anyone who thinks that the flow of money into corrupt pockets will still somehow ultimately redound to Russia's benefit is fooling themselves: "It's well documented that corruption discourages investment, because it makes businesses uncertain about what it takes to get ahead. [C]orruption leads politicians to overinvest in low-quality infrastructure projects while skimping on maintaining existing projects. [C]ountries with high levels of corruption spen[d] little on education. In economist-speak, corrupt politicians put too much money into physical capital and not enough into human capital. Crony construction capitalism leaves us with too few teachers and too many ski jumps to nowhere."

In other words, the reason that Squaw Valley brought in their Olympics at such a lower cost than Sochi is that the government of California was (and is) far more accountable to its citizens than the Russian Kremlin. California had (and has) plenty of empowered reporters who could ferret out such outrageous excesses as are taking place in Russia; Putin has a chokehold on journalists and particularly on television reporting. Putin also directly controls elections, and there is no hint that he could be removed from power. The corridors of power in California are a revolving door.

Despite spending $50 billion, Russia became an international laughingstock as the Olympics opened in Sochi. Hotels weren't finished and venues were poorly attended. The opening ceremony was emblematic, with gaffe after gaffe. Not only had Russia failed to create the gold-plated experience that such massive spending ought to have guaranteed, but it became clear that Putin had also failed to properly manage his public relations. He engaged in insanely provocative behavior before the games, arresting artists and political opponents and cracking down on homosexuals, as well as pursuing imperialism in Ukraine, all things that could have waited until the games were over. In doing so, he created a vast class of people eager to find fault with his games, and boy oh boy did they ever find it.

From toilets that trapped athletes like rats to snowflakes that should have turned into Olympic rings but somehow didn't, from empty Olympic venues and resorts to a shocking scarcity of hotel space for journalists, most of what could have gone wrong did go wrong.

But even if everything had gone right, the profligate waste of billions of dollars in a country whose citizens don't rank in the top 100 nations of the world for life expectancy is an outrage, and something that Russia will never live down. It is a Soviet act, one that disregards the welfare of the people in order to serve the massive egos and ideological obsessions of its tiny class of oligarchical rulers. That type of policy brought the USSR to ruin, and it will do the same to Russia.

Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.