It wasn’t a parachuting Queen of England, but organizers of the opening ceremony of the 28th Winter Olympics of 2014 had their own giddy, publicity-generating ace: the presence of President Putin’s rumored girlfriend or wife. Alina Kabaeva was one of the chosen six of Russia’s premier athletes to convey the Olympic torch through Sochi’s Fisht Stadium.
The 30-year-old former rhythmic gymnast and Olympic gold medalist, who is now a member of the Russian Parliament, was even rumored to have had Putin’s children, which she has denied. But there she was, center stage, for the finale of the three-hour opening ceremony.
However, Kabaeva’s presence didn’t ace the dancing sea anemones. Nothing could. They took the place of the release of doves to symbolize peace, and were a group of ballerinas wearing extended fringes of fairylights, spinning to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. At the end of their segment, the BBC commentator Hazel Irvine noted how dizzy they must be.
By the close of the three-hour, $50 billion ceremony we felt disorientated too. Nothing can quell the stench of rottenness about these Olympics, and how Putin’s persecution of lesbian and gay people is at such startling variance to Olympic ideals. The Ceremony sought to put an audacious sugar-coating to Russian history new and old.
The anemones were way gay, gayer than t.A.T.u. holding hands in a pre-show concert, and almost as gay as making a song and dance routine out of Stalinism. And then there was the gay snowflake, the snowflake that didn’t want to join the other snowflakes to become part of a fancy Olympic symbol. The snowflake that stood alone.
The ceremony began with the Cyrillic alphabet and significant Russian figures or inventions attached to each letter: from Lake Baikal to Catherine The Great, corn mowing machines, Kandinsky, Nabokov, Television, and Pushkin. Then a young girl on a trapeze, dressed all in innocent white and called Love, began a journey through Russian history, beginning by floating above a series of virtual landscapes, including the birch forests of the Urals. As 500 people amassed to symbolize the 185 ethnic groups in the Russian Federation, it became apparent that many of the 40,000 seats in the stadium were empty. No matter: the show must go on, and it did, beginning with “Snowflake-gate.”
Wait till you see the snowflakes, we were told. The snowflakes grew in size into circles, which were arranging themselves into the Olympic symbol. All was going well until the fifth snowflake, which stubbornly didn’t change into an Olympic ring. Whoever responsible will now be en route, no return ticket, to the gulags.
Still, at least the rendition of the anthem of the Russian Federation passed off smoothly, with actors in red, white and blue running around to arrange themselves as a fluttering national flag. Then came the parade of athletes, which summoned up images of The Hunger Games, featuring countries big (all of Canada is literally there, in Sochi), small (go Venezuela’s sole competitor, Antonio Jose Pardo Andretta!), and turned out in hideous knitwear (sorry, dear US of A, you suck—should have stayed in the pile marked “For Christmas Day-wear only”). Germany deserves special props for showing up in rainbow duds, as a clear statement to Putin on how unacceptable his program of legislative homophobia is. Spain had very jaunty hats.
Too many athletes were on their phones and texting as they emerged from a subterranean tunnel, which made you depressed for humanity generally. The BBC commentator, as only excitable BBC commentators can, queried the presence of good sushi in Lebanon, and why Iceland didn’t send more athletes, because of all the ice there. The bravest outfits were Lichtenstein’s Jackson Pollock-inspired zip-up jackets. Very Mudd Club. Mongolia had the cutest scarves and woolly hat combos. Best were the countries you had never heard of—San Marino—and the French, who annoyingly look better than everyone else, even in pallor-killing charcoal grey. When Russia’s athletes came out, the volume was cranked up for Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.”
News of an attempted hijack of a Ukraine-bound plane broke just as a terrifying bear, snow leopard and bunny rabbit appeared to usher back the poor trapeze girl as she continued her journey through Russian history from settlement—men with beards chopping down trees with butch gusto; NOT GAY AT ALL—to crops being created or something (it looked very 300), and then a very pretty lit-up recast of the Troika, a three-horse sleigh big in the 17th century. Colorful inflated onion domes appeared to symbolize the birth of urbanization. The floor became a CGI’d seething, roiling sea to show the rise of Imperial Russia under Peter The Great. Classical music boomed through a beautiful, balletic telling of War and Peace, while the Russian Revolution, mechanization and Stalinism became an impressive extension of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West,” featuring people in red tracksuits maneuvering around red-hued machinery, hammers and sickles and pieces of modernist art filling the air. The red, I suppose, could have also symbolized the blood of lives lost and murdered under Stalin; but it seemed instead to speak to a generalized notion that this was an era of furious activity and revolution—not the human cost of lives lost and crushed under dictatorship.
Clap, clap. Move it on, honey. A sudden shutdown of the light-show symbolized the millions of lives lost in World War II. This was yet more difficult history, recast, and conveyed through jazz-hands; The Producers if you like, only with a straight-face, not satire. Things became even more laughable as post-war Communism was filtered as a jolly time with people driving about with beehives and sharp suits. Intriguingly, the show ended with the poor girl on the trapeze letting go of a red balloon, symbolizing the end of Communism in 1991. For the show’s purposes that was where the history lesson would end. The last 30 years of Russian history remained untold and unreferenced. Surely it should have ended with a spotlit shirtless leader on a horse, or wrestling a bear. Non gay-ly.
Something truly incendiary was to come: a telling off for Putin. In the speeches, Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, told the crowd—but really Putin, sitting and scowling - that being an Olympic athlete meant “living under one roof with tolerance and without discrimination for whatever reason…embracing human diversity with brave unity.” Mr. Bach, be ready to dodge any tips of umbrellas that suddenly appear in front of you.
Putin grumpily stood up and opened the Games. Anna Netrebko sang the Olympic anthem, with a way-gay male voice choir clad in fitted white suits. The stadium was filled with another light show, featuring winter sporting activities. Maria Sharapova appeared with the Olympic torch, and would be on your front pages tomorrow had it not been for the show-stealing appearance of Kabeyeva. Sharapova has clothes to sell, and will not be happy.
This viewer felt for the two veteran Russian athletes tasked with running with the torch to light the actual flame, because this last journey seemed to take hours, involving running out of the arena, passed the massed ranks of dragged-up peasants, cosmonauts, ballerinas and sea anemones, then out into a deserted piece of industrial wasteland where they waved vainly at railings and then, finally, to one of those pieces of sculpture that—y'know—looks unsteady; the kind of silly structure that would somehow feature at the climax of a Miss Congeniality movie. But the lighting of the flame was joyous. The couple, who must have been knackered, ignited some kind of contact point, leading to a whole bunch of mini-flames springing into life—beyond gay—before the big flame burst forth. And it didn’t collapse around Sandra Bullock’s head. So, all was good.
The BBC judged the Opening Ceremony to be a success, apart from the “slightly misbehaving snowflake.” But really it told a rich history, recast and simplified into a series of icons and absurdities. Appositely, for one of the most propaganda-adept nations in the world, it rolled myth into fact, made the ugly beautiful, and skirted the rest. It flirted with darkness and difficult truths, and then quite literally turned the lights off. It was spectacular, audacious, and revealed—as the 2012 Olympics in London also did—not just the image of how a host country wants to sell itself to the world, but also how those countries like to see themselves. It may be shambolic, shameless emotional grandstanding, but it is oddly moving, despite the ruthless history edit.
Putin’s tense, querulous pose throughout the event mirrored the viewer’s. This is the Uncomfortable Olympics. While we wait for medals and freshly minted heroes, we also hope it passes quickly and peacefully. Unseen by the millions at home were the latest pictures of gay rights protesters being arrested in Moscow. Bravely, they should remind us of Putin’s real Russia, even as the Jamaican bobsled team make us smile.