Critic’s Notebook: Sochi Games don’t live down to the negative hype

Shaun White didn't win an expected medal in the men's halfpipe.
(Franck Fife / AFP/Getty Images)

Despite the grim and often overtly political pre-Games coverage of what became known as Putin’s Olympics, the only crises to have occurred in Sochi thus far are Shaun White’s failure to medal in the half-pipe and Bob Costas’ wicked eye infection.

The latter was apparent from Day 1 and grew so distracting to Costas and viewers that on Tuesday, the Olympic veteran turned the evening seat over to “Today’s” Matt Lauer. (Who, it must be noted, seemed so unsurprised by the news he’d be the prime-time replacement that it is difficult not to wonder how, exactly, Costas got that infection.) Lauer brought his trademark boyish insouciance to his debut; though he did wear socks, he was not, by gosh, going to shave.

The anchor trade may have irritated some (memo to Lauer: Please shave), but it is certainly not the International Incident we have been repeatedly warned about.


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For weeks, the media preamble to the Games leaned heavily on political criticism: For Russia’s anti-gay laws, the expense of the facilities, the unsmiling tyranny of the president, the joylessness of the populace and the shoddiness of the accommodations. (If you want to ensure negative coverage, put journalists in bad hotel rooms.)

While the homophobic laws and comments from various Russian officials were outrageous, and concerns about President Vladimir Putin’s still-repressive policies remain a necessary part of the coverage, the tone increasingly trended to near hysteria, especially when compared with the months-long Valentine to Britain of two summers ago. Stray Sochi dogs were being rounded up and possibly shot! The American athletes couldn’t get their Chobani yogurt! Russia doesn’t support gay rights the way all of America does! (Wait, what?)

Russia, so long considered America’s arch-nemesis, was presented as being so vast and inscrutable that NBC hired the New Yorker editor and former foreign correspondent David Remnick to explain the mysteries of Russian history and make sure no one was having too much fun.

The day before the opening ceremony, Remnick sat down with journalist Vladimir Posner to figure out just what, exactly, ol’ Putin was trying to do with these here Olympics. Prove that his country was now an international player, that’s what, the two decided as if unmasking a conspiracy. And he’ll consider them a success if the Games go off without a terrorist attack or some enormous technical snafu.

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Not surprisingly, many thought the grim prophecy fulfilled by the now-infamous Fifth Snowflake Disaster. Early on in the opening ceremony, one of five large illuminated snowflakes refused to turn into an Olympic ring. The show included a young girl successfully suspended hundreds of feet in the air, enormous and flawlessly executed dance numbers, and a stadium floor that miraculously transformed into oceans, countries and Venetian-glass skies.

But did you see that malfunctioning snowflake?

Just when it seemed that all this strangely aggrieved and patronizing political subtext would ruin the event entirely, the Games actually began and things, mercifully, got back to normal.

The skaters are gorgeous, the luge looks really scary, and the commentators talk too much. (Seriously, guys, when the event you are covering includes music and sequins, we only need you to explain the super-complicated jumps.)

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Jimmy Fallon showed up Tuesday night with a funny superlative list (including “Most Intimidating OK Cupid Profile Picture”) and to remind everyone that as of Monday it’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” NBC’s “Today” anchors celebrated the winners, consoled the losers, teased each other about drinking too much vodka and did wacky things like try on the uniforms of the Norwegian curling team.

Mary Carillo, always an Olympic coverage high point, gamely ate a bunch of Russian food, told us how vodka is made and made some truly excellent reindeer game jokes from Siberia (causing many to remember and revisit her insanely hilarious diatribe against badminton from the 2004 Olympics.)

The American athletes have hit performance highs — Julia Mancuso’s surprise bronze, Erin Hamlin winning the first U.S. medal ever in individual luge — and lows — especially White and speedskater Shani Davis failing to three-peat for the gold in their best events.

Canadian skier Alex Bilodeau won gold in the men’s moguls, but more important became the soul of this year’s Games with his touching admiration for his brother Frederic, who has cerebral palsy. Likewise, American skier Heidi Kloser and German speed skater Judith Hesse embodied the Games’ heartbreak: Kloser tore her ACL during a practice run and Hesse was disqualified before ever skating for two false starts.

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Social media gave us some lovely you-are-there moments ranging from Johnny Quinn’s escape from his hotel bathroom (and again from a malfunctioning elevator), Hannah Kearney’s very real disappointment over winning bronze and local girl Kate Hansen warming up to Beyoncé before placing a magnificent 10th in women’s luge (La Cañada is in the house).

Weather has been a bit of a problem — warm temperatures on Rosa Khutor have made the snow mushier than most skiers would prefer — and all the snowboarders agree the halfpipe was a mess. But today’s another day in Sochi where, one hopes, the drama will continue to be of the normal athletic variety.

In other words, business as usual.

Except, of course, Bob Costas’ eye. Which does make you wonder: Is Matt Lauer working for the Russians?