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Sochi problems reveal larger issues

Before the 2014 Winter Olympics, most people had probably never heard of Sochi. Of course, now it is becoming a household name as reporters from around the world descend on this Russian resort city. 

Unfortunately, not all of the attention is positive.

As a developing country in the post-Soviet era, Russia has surely hoped to make a good impression on the world as it hosts the Olympics. But Western journalists have seemed mostly to notice the many flaws of Sochi. 

On Twitter and on blogs, they have filed a steady stream of update showing unusual or, in their view, humorous discoveries they have made while staying in Russia. 

In one update on Twitter, a reporter from the Chicago Tribune showed a photo of a glass of tap water from her hotel room. The color was amber, similar to beer. 

A Twitter account called @SochiProblems has started to retweet these types of photos. For the tap water photo, @SochiProblems tweeted: "Enjoy your peach juice, it comes directly from the tap! Oh wait, that's water…"

In another update retweeted by @SochiProblems, someone posted a picture of an elevator's up/down buttons. Both buttons pointed up. The Twitter user wrote, "I was trying to catch an elevator down today but my options were limited." 

In other cases, people have shared photos of signs with very poorly written English in hotels, restaurants and other public places.

The problems of Sochi can be humorous at first glance. In many cases, they seem to show a place that hurried to get ready for its big event and didn't quite get the details right. However, on closer reflection, the topic really is not funny because it is, after all, not good-natured.

In my view, having a laugh at the expense of others can be OK as long those being laughed at are at equal or greater status. Laughing at those less fortunate than ourselves is, in fact, mean-spirited. 

The scene in Sochi right now involves journalists from wealthy Western countries making fun of a far poorer country. The takeaway message is that the journalists have little understanding of the world outside their own country and little empathy for less fortunate people.

On the other hand, some commentators have said that Russia deserves to be embarrassed because the country's problems arise from official corruption. They see the tweets as a way to highlight the country's troubles and perhaps shame the government into making changes. 

The issue with this viewpoint is that, regardless of what caused the problems, the people who suffer most in Russia are everyday citizens. For example, Russians surely do not want to drink water that looks like peach juice any more than American journalists do. The difference is the Americans have a choice, while the Russians do not. It is inappropriate and mean-spirited for American news reporters to hold Sochi up for ridicule.

Sochi has problems, it's true. But when citizens of wealthy, developed countries are pointing them out for laughs, that's not funny.

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