Cover image of the Olympic Hymn, 1896
With the 2022 Winter Olympics opening ceremonies taking place today, and Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping shaking hands in Beijing, here is a look back at Russia’s equally implausible Winter Games of 2014.
—February 24, 2014
Contesting boreal events on the sub-tropical shores of the Black Sea even with the imposing Caucus Mountains rising behind is absurd on the face of it, even more so in an age of looming climate catastrophe. Since the flight of Canadian NHL franchises to the United States, north Americans have become inured to the bizarre sight of hockey – and by extension other winter sports — being played in the shadow of palm trees. But for most rational people across the globe, Russia’s version of Florida is a downright rummy place to host the spectacle.
Sochi is richer in paradoxes than summery winter weather. The city is Russia’s Gold Coast capital, as one learns in myriad unexpected ways in the Sochi Project, a riveting account of Russia’s imperial Olympic ambitions that places these in their geographic, cultural, and historical contexts. Creators of this treasure trove are the intrepid “slow journalists” from The Netherlands, Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen, respectively photographer and writer/filmmaker. They’ve now been refused entry into Russia for the Games on account of the truths they lay bare in their work.
We learn in Hornstra and van Bruggen’s first chapter that Sochi is “like Florida only cheaper.” The metropolitan area is a sprawling stretch of holiday mayhem extending more than a hundred miles along the Black Sea shoreline. The place is filled with trinket shops and bad restaurants, huge and miserable hotels, and legions of one-man and one-woman musical acts—and the occasional duo—that often face off against each other at adjacent outdoor cafés. This creates an apocalyptic cacophony that hardly bothers the Russians who travel days by train from distant Siberia for their vacations in the sun. On the Sochi Project website Hornstra presents a wonderful series of photographs of these musicians, laptops for back-up bands, sharing their makeshift stages with drinks fridges, fire extinguishers, the door to the toilet, bad murals and portable fans to cool their performing labors.
These images of working Sochi singers brought into still greater relief the kitschy myths of Mother Russia floating by on garish color clouds through the midst of the stadium during the opening ceremony—like a Tarkovsky film seen in the midst of a bad trip. Those real Sochi singers should have been up there on those clouds.
Russia is plagued by feelings of inferiority on account of the country’s lack of pop stars of international celebrity, elevating such figures to global fame only, as in the case of Pussy Riot, by jailing them. With Putin breathing down their necks, the Olympic organizers pushed hard instead on the nation’s status as a classical music giant, those sweeping ballet melodies forming the heart of the Russian musical brand. The celebrated Russian maestro and Putin pal Valery Gergiev marched into the stadium with other luminaries and later conducted national warhorses from Borodin, Tchaikovksy, and Stravinsky.
Another chum of the iron-fisted Russian president is the opera singer Anna Netrebko. She was accorded the dubious honor of singing the mandatory Olympic Anthem. This nineteenth-century behemoth was composed for the first modern games in Athens in 1896. Described by its Greek creators as a cantata, the work is a ten-minute heap of bombast and cliché: heroic fanfares wrestling for time with chorale outbursts in a harmonic style shared with national anthems and the Protestant hymns of colonialism. Yet so closely linked with the rebirth of the Games was the hymn that it was done at the opening and closing ceremonies every four years until officially adopted by the International Olympic Committee in 1958. Now there appears no way to cut the chain attaching the sporting spectacle to this colossal late-Romantic deadweight. The hymn ranks up there with the American national anthem as one of the worst ceremonial songs of international standing.
After opera star Renée Fleming was condemned to drag the American anthem across the world stage at the recent Super Bowl, it seemed only fair that her Russian counterpart, Netrebko, should be sentenced to perform the Olympic Hymn at Sochi.
Backed by a male chorus in blinding white tailcoats, the soprano wore a Curaçao-colored gown that evoked less the once icy ravines of the Caucus mountains than a zombie-bottle of windshield de-icing fluid, though her costume also summoned warmer and more welcome thoughts of Björk’s voluminous robes when she sang and swam her way through the primordially soupy new-age waters of Oceania at the Athens games back in 2004.
The original frontispiece engraving of the 1896 edition of the Olympic Hymn is adorned with images of naked Greek athletes evoking from the ancient Games: the discus thrower (with genitals covered) and that pair of wrestlers locked in naked embrace that nowadays seems dangerously close to running afoul of Russia’s notorious anti-gay laws.
The hymn concludes with idealistic effusions that capture just some of the most obvious hypocrisies of this global gathering to celebrate sport in all its purity and good will: first, that the Olympics were born of homo-social affinity and are now being staged in homophobic Russia; second, that the whole spectacle is being scorched by the carbon-fueled flame of humanity:
And let fraternity and fellowship
Surround the soul, of every nation.
O flame, eternal in your firmament so bright,
Illuminate us with your everlasting light,
That grace and beauty and magnificence
Shine like the sun, blazing above,
Bestow on us your honor, truth and love.