The warning signs were there from the start. In Sochi, at the Opening Ceremonies for the 2014 Winter Olympics, there was the typical fanfare: performers, fireworks, music. All of it was supposed to culminate in five massive LED snowflakes transforming into the Olympic rings. But only four of the five actually opened—and instead of previewing a coming spectacle, those glitching rings more accurately foreshadowed what would become an epic debacle.

The Sochi Olympics never made any sense. The Russian resort town’s average temperature in February? 52 degrees. Palm trees line the streets. The town was home to Stalin’s summer getaway, and the nearest mountains are a little more than an hour away. But late in the bidding process, Vladimir Putin flew to Central America (because, of course) to meet with the members of the International Olympic Committee personally. “You know we can turn sports competitions into a really spectacular show,” he told them. “And we are good at it.”

The problems began almost immediately. Sochi quickly became the most expensive Winter Games in history. During the torch lighting relay, the famed Olympic torch went out…44 times! As they were putting the finishing touches on a brand new, $32 million arena, a homeless cat fell through the ceiling. Speaking of stray animals, there were reports that the streets of Sochi were packed with dogs in the days before the games—and that authorities were rounding them up and poisoning them.

It only got worse once athletes and fans arrived. One reporter realized that water wasn’t running at her hotel. When she called the front desk, they warned her that once the water was restored, “do not use [it] on your face because it contains something very dangerous.” When it got turned back on, it looked like this. An American bobsledder got locked in his bathroom and had to force his way out. On the day of the women’s Super G skiing competition, temperatures reached the mid-60s, and 18 different skiers couldn’t make it down the mountain. And who can forget Bob Costas and his pink eye? #SochiFail trended on Twitter for the entirety of the games.

But the real fail wasn’t revealed for another two years, when the director of Sochi’s antidoping lab told the New York Times about his country’s massive, state-sponsored doping effort. At the facility built to process drug tests at the Sochi Games, officials built a secret hole through which they swapped tainted urine samples with clean ones. Every night, the director would receive a list of athletes who needed a switch and after midnight, lab workers would ensure those tests would come back negative. 33 Russian athletes medaled in Sochi, and a third of them were listed as complicit on documents received by the Times.

Russia was banned from international competitions for four years in response to the scandal, although their athletes could still compete as an “International Athlete from Russia.” But although the disgrace—and the Wizard of Oz feel to the entire Sochi Games—felt like a unique misstep from the Olympics, the rest of the decade proved that those ramshackle games might be the new norm. One day in 2016, the Rio swimming pool turned green, and on another, a New Zealand athlete was kidnapped and robbed by police. The 2018 games in Pyeongchang were overshadowed by threats of a nuclear attack from North Korea—and then by Vice President Mike Pence’s decision to chum it up with the North Korean government. Postponing the Tokyo Olympics last summer will cost the Japanese government an estimated $13.5 billion, and it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to have fans to recoup some of that income.

These Olympic failings have felt like the end of something. Maybe I’m just getting older and becoming more cynical, but I think it’s something else. The games have always been a little silly, a whole lot of pomp and circumstance for handball, curling, and archery, but recently, organizers have been hitting all the wrong notes. Instead of the pageantry that typically brings us together, the whole enterprise has just felt wasteful and disingenuous—and the stench has spread to other international events as well. Don’t forget: This was the period in which FIFA was nearly toppled with corruption charges, and the 2022 World Cup was awarded to Qatar, where stadiums will be built with slave labor. That same year, in 2022, the Winter Olympics will be held in Beijing, with mountain events held on slopes that receive an average of two inches of snowfall a year—meaning all of the snow will be man-made.

So, maybe the moment those rings in Sochi failed to open was just a production flaw. But maybe it was the omen of a different message, a more serious one. Maybe it was a sign that the golden age of international sports had come to an end.

The 10th Annual Joey Awards

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