In which we debunk the notorious "Sochi double toilet" scandal that hoodwinked the world's media
If you’re keeping an eye out for a little bathroom humor from the Sochi Olympics, this story has been hard to miss. A picture of a shiny, new bathroom boasting two toilets, side by side, with no partition separating them. For days, the photo has been offending delicate Western sensibilities around the hemisphere.
BBC journalist Steve Rosenberg snapped the pic on his phone at Sochi’s Olympic Biathlon Center, posted it to Twitter, and instantly sent the world into a foaming porcelain frenzy. The New York Times was the latest to use the picture to illustrate the swirl of (alleged) corruption, waste and incompetence around Sochi, saying: “The image seemed a pas de deux of either poor design and Olympian waste that, for a fleeting moment at least, became a symbol of the entire endeavor.”
They weren’t alone. Here’s just a taster of the headlines:
Sochi’s Olympic Bathrooms Ironically Great for Public Sex (HuffPost Gay Voices)
Russians Build “Love Toilets” at Sochi Olympics (AmericaBlog)
Good Luck Going to the Bathroom in Sochi (Fox Sports)
Look a bit closer at the photo and you’ll start to see cracks in the story of Sochi’s unforgiveable double-flusher. The first hint that something is amiss is a visible vertical line of white residue on the wall between the toilets, where a partition presumably used to hang, indicating that the toilet wasn’t always meant to be a two-for-one.
There’s more. Well-known Russian blogger Sergei Nikita picked up on the global furor about the toilet. Enraged by what he saw as BBC sensationalism, Nikita returned to the Biathlon Center to investigate.
What he found was that Rosenberg’s bathroom, perhaps previously set up with two cubicles, had now been converted to a storage room. The toilets had been entirely removed, replaced with some filing cabinets. Below is the matching image, annotated.
The identifying marks have been annotated on the image:
A: The residue mark, which stops at the same level as in Rosenberg’s tweet.
B: The toilet paper holder matches the one in the original image nicely.
C: The vertical grouting line hits the silver flusher in exactly the same place as in the BBC reporter’s tweeted image.
D: Visible bolts for a second toilet-roll holder. Rosenberg, in his BBC write-up that started toiletgeddon, mentions that there was only one toilet-roll holder. He made no mention of these bolts, and his pic was cropped too tightly for them to be visible.
I’ve had a look at the EXIF data of Nikita’s image, the metadata added to images by digital cameras that tell you more about the photo. The date in the metadata matches the date of Nikita’s post and post-dates Rosenberg’s tweet by two days and five hours, or thereabouts, adding credence to Nikita’s version of the story:
“[T]he construction is finishing up in the run up to the Games,” writes Nikita on his blog.
“To fulfill a request by those organizing the Games, three of the stadium’s toilets were remodeled. They were actually taking those stalls and toilets apart in order to move them. You see the mark in the middle of the wall in Steve’s photo? The BBC journalist snapped it when the stall wall had been taken down but the toilets had not yet been taken out. There is an identical toilet one floor up.”
The toilet was held up by news organizations around the world as evidence of bizarre bathroom behavior on the part of the crazy Russians. The ease with which people were happy to re-run that line, without checking or following up, borders on latent racism. (See the number of news takes under Rosenberg’s off-the-cuff tweet for more versions of the headline.)
As in The New York Times line, the mid-refurbishment toilet pic is more symptomatic of the last-minute scramble to get Sochi ready. It points at bad planning and wasted money. (Partitions ain’t cheap, folks, and storage rooms don’t need expensive tiles.)
Any speculation beyond that simply isn’t worth the two-ply paper it’s written on.