- - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

As the Winter Olympics in Sochi have gotten underway, the world has been captivated — and shocked — over the state of accommodations reporters and athletes are facing.

The lack of heat, electricity, working doorknobs, locks and even running water have stymied even the most intrepid of journalists. Let’s not even mention the side-by-side twin toilets, the inability to flush toilet paper, or even to wash one’s face owing to tap water that resembles jet fuel.

With hotels still under construction, the estimated $51 billion price tag of this Olympics, the most expensive in history, have many wondering why hosting such a grand event seemed to catch the Russians by surprise. An extreme pillow shortage for athletes in the Olympic Village was explained away with the excuse there were “athletes who unexpectedly arrived.” Were they surprised there were athletes arriving to compete in the Olympics? It may seem so.

Millennials watching the Olympics who have no point of reference from the days of the Soviet Union may be surprised by the poor quality of conditions being reported in Sochi. In reality however, these Olympic games are just another example in the long saga of Russian inhospitality. International delegations are oftentimes faced with Cold War-era accommodations that seem to not have had the luxury of maintenance since the Soviet Union handed the United States its first Olympic basketball loss in 1972.

Obviously, Moscow has come a long way since the days of the USSR. There are many impressive hotels in the downtown area, particularly around Red Square. Many of those hotels are foreign (mostly American) corporate chain hotels such as Marriott, Hilton and even the Ritz Carlton. Homemade Russian hotels are not so nice, and they mirror the quality of the hotels that were reportedly constructed in Sochi.

I have had the debatable pleasure of experiencing Russian hospitality after traveling through the country a few times as a part of the George W. Bush White House press office. Many times, members of the White House staff would stay where the press corps were situated. This was not always a good thing. I spent the single most terrifying night of my life in Moscow at a Russian hotel — the Hotel Rossiya — right off of Red Square, which was (thankfully) set to be demolished right after we left. It was dark and dirty with endless hallways that I swore harbored countless unidentifiable critters. If walls could talk, those would be screaming — the hotel was reportedly used for KGB interrogations.

In 2006, we traveled to St. Petersburg for the G8 Summit, which was also Russia’s first time serving as host nation. Traditionally, the host country decides where each country’s leader and press corps stay. A bit of tension between the countries landed me, along with the press corps, on the outskirts of the city at the Hotel Prisbaltiyskaya, a mere step up from the Hotel Rossiya. Low ceilings, dim lighting, and fish tanks that lacked any fish were the least of our worries. A confusing maze of hallways turned us around so that we felt like rats trapped in some sort of scientific experiment.

There is something inexplicably wrong with a host country making their international guests feel as if their safety is at stake. The Hotel Prisbaltiyskaya had such an intense air of wrongness; I felt it necessary to bunk with a reporter just to get through the night. The white-marbled lobby was such a contradiction to the rest of the building that the Hotel Prisbaltiyskaya earned the moniker — somewhat affectionately — of the “Disco Gulag.”

Once again, Russia has again taken the international stage, and failed miserably. With years to prepare for thousands of visitors and to portray themselves as gracious hosts, they have done the exact opposite and have reminded many why it’s risky to visit their distant shores. In contrast with beautiful hotels in Moscow run by international corporations, those constructed in the vacinity of Olympic Village were built strictly by the Russians, and it is easy to see where things went wrong.

Over the past week, journalists have been getting a bit of heat for their portrayal of the accommodations. They have been called out for being insensitive to the cultural norms of the host country, and have been pegged as whussies for their repugnance at having to throw used toilet paper into a trashcan rather than the toilet. However, the point is not the fact that these privileged Americans can’t drink the water. Rather, it is that Russia had years — and billions of dollars — to prepare for an international crowd and to welcome them for the first time since the 1980 Summer Olympics. The fact that construction was incomplete as the games began is telling.

Russian hospitality has been an issue long before the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and will likely remain one long after. One can only hope the current backlash will cause a change for the better for future visiting delegations — or at the very least ensure they are provided with working hotel-room locks and water that doesn’t resemble jet fuel.

Lea Hutchins is a former White House press assistant for President George W. Bush.