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Amy Donaldson: Covering the Sochi Olympics was a mixture of admiration, appreciation and conflict

Published: Monday, March 3 2014 1:24 p.m. MST

It is one of the aspects of Salt Lake and Vancouver that I loved most. Jumping on a bus or sitting in a crowd was like traveling to places I’d never been as it was possible to meet people from all over the world in one afternoon.

There are all kinds of ways to experience the Olympics. Buying a ticket and watching a sporting event is only one of them. I remember being encouraged to wander art galleries and listen to musicians brought into Vancouver just for the games.

If there was a cultural Olympiad, I couldn’t find it. I understand and concur with some of the criticism of the IOC for awarding the games to a city like Sochi. I'm not so sure building Olympic venues from the ground up in seven years is a good thing. But I also saw the benefits firsthand in Salt Lake City of how hosting the games can benefit a community for many years.

What bothered me more than feeling like I was unable to really know Russia was the way American journalists treated our hosts. It is, most certainly, our job to ask questions and challenge authority, and sometimes that makes us seem like contrarians. But in Sochi, the level of cynicism and criticism became something of a sport — engaged in mostly by American journalists.

They complained about everything from the type of toilet paper to the shoddy construction. Who knew door handles, shower curtains and clean towels were a luxury?

As I watched legitimate issues get lost in the frenzy of ridiculous, nit-picky complaints, I was almost embarrassed to be a journalist. It was as if we’d been invited to someone’s home and then wandered around pointing out all the ways in which they’d failed to make us feel at home.

The reality is, most of the world doesn’t use two-ply toilet paper. Most of the world can’t flush just about anything in a toilet and not do serious damage to the septic system.

Every community doesn’t care for their pets the way we do. It struck me as hypocritical to criticize Russian officials for rounding up stray dogs and possibly euthanizing them, when we euthanize thousands of unwanted animals in the U.S. every year. And, maybe even more ironic, is that it’s the complaints from journalists about strays wandering in and around hotels that led to the crackdown in the first place.

That’s not to say I didn’t think the action warranted criticism. As the owner of multiple rescued pets, I supported the efforts of the journalists who revealed the roundup, which led to the involvement of organizations that helped save the dogs.

Sure, our host city didn’t recycle, but I was told by my hotel clerk, it was American guests who demanded larger garbage cans and daily trash removal.

I was in Russia to cover our Utah and U.S. athletes. And as I did, I tried to accept what was given without judgment. That’s not easy because what I realized very quickly is that we’re spoiled. From the simplest pleasures — like a fountain soda — to the most basic freedoms — the ability to go where we want, when we want — we’re privileged.

And, I guess, instead of being critical of communities that do not enjoy these same luxuries, I would have appreciated it if we recognized how blessed we are without belittling those who are not so lucky. In Russia, it felt a little like we came looking for faults. And when we found them, we dragged them into the town square that is social media and threw stones like we have no sins of our own. Anyone remember the fact that athletes were late arriving to competition venues because the bus system was so bad in Atlanta? Or that they forgot to make Centennial Square wheelchair accessible so they taped plywood over stairs? Or how about the fact that in Vancouver, the Olympic flame was behind a huge fence? Or that tickets at Cypress Mountain had to be canceled because the spectator area had melted away?

Despite the fact that problems of some sort always occur, there are reasons to love the games and the goodwill they engender. One of the most beautiful aspects of the Olympics is that it brings the world together. When that happens, there will be differences, some of which are uncomfortable and unexpected. If I am fortunate enough to cover or visit another Olympic Games, I hope to see my countrymen and colleagues recognize the beauty of the community that welcomes us, even if there are issues that as journalists we must address.

As we rode the wrong bus through Krasnaya Polyana, I smiled and told my new Russian friend what I liked about his city — starting with the fact that Russian pancakes are topped with condensed milk and ending with the beauty of the sea. We talked and laughed, and when we finally stopped and figured out that we needed to take separate paths, we said our goodbyes. He shook my hand and said, “We love Americans. We want to be your friends.”

Twitter: adonsports EMAIL: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

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