Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sochi Winter Games Opener: Putin on a big show

From grandeur to absurdity, Sochi's opening ceremony is one for the books.

Posted by on Sun, Feb 9, 2014 at 11:21 PM

click to enlarge The opening ceremony was held in Fisht Olympic Stadium, a 40,000-seat open air arena. - KREMLIN.RU
  • kremlin.ru
  • The opening ceremony was held in Fisht Olympic Stadium, a 40,000-seat open air arena.
What would Brian Boitano do if he were here right now? ‘Tis a question many of us have pondered since, when in 1999, Matt Stone and Trey Parker tunefully posed it to us in their film, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. To Mr. Stone, Mr. Parker and the viewing audience of NBC’s Olympics Opening Ceremony telecast Friday night, President Barack Obama now has an answer; He would lead the American delegation to the Sochi Winter Games. And so, the openly gay former Olympic figure skating hero has done just that.

There has been much controversy surrounding these games, a topic frequently alluded to by the ceremony’s commentators Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira.

Chief among these controversies has been Russian Federation president, Vladimir Putin’s hostile attitude towards gays and his views (or lack there of) on human rights. Those, and myriad other issues, have prompted many countries, like Lithuania, to refrain from sending heads of state or political leaders to Sochi. Other countries, like our own, have said that there is no political motivation behind such decisions. Though, the smirk that seemed to be slowly forming behind President Obama’s visage in his pre-ceremony interview with Bob Costas, the fact that Mr. Boitano waited until being announced as part of the delegation to officially come out as gay and his replacement of tennis legend, Billie-Jean King, another openly gay athlete, as the head of the delegation could lead some to speculate otherwise.

As newly elected president to the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach urged us to check our political baggage at the door and focus on what is important, celebrating the coming together of the world’s pinnacle of athletic achievement and national pride in cold-weather related sporting events.

Since the 1920 Summer Games in Antwerp, Belgium, official opening ceremonies have been a modern Olympic tradition. However, it was not until the sensational opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Summer Games that the ceremonies entered the realm of “must-see TV” Since heavily lobbying for the games, President Putin has made it his mission to reinvent the image of Russia from the country-in-shambles view it has had in the years since the fall of the USSR. Insofar as opening ceremonies are concerned, kudos to President Putin.

The ceremony was held in Fisht Olympic Stadium, a 40,000-seat open air arena built for the purpose of housing the opening and closing ceremonies. Whether or not the $778.7 million it is reported to have cost in construction was worth it, given the developmental state of Russia’s economy, is yet to be seen.

The ceremonies were based on a young Russian girl named Lubov (Russian word for love) taking us on a history of Russia through her dreams. Lubov made her debut strung up to the impressive gantry system like a human marionette and was within seconds lifted off to the rafters for the dreams to begin.

We were first taken through an isolationist Russia, before Peter the Great’s voyages into the western world. It was a dazzling display featuring a colorful carnival of classic, onion-domed Russian architecture; an elaborate circus-like atmosphere that looked as if someone directed Disney’s Dumbo while tripping on high dosages of LSD after having ridden It’s a Small World.

The gantry system, which operates like the clothing racks of dry-cleaners, was the real star; transporting enormous set pieces, some up to 80 by 200 feet, across the expanse of the arena.

Next came the ushering in of western influence, thanks to Czar Peter the Great, who heavily modernized Russia during his reign in the late 17th century and established Russia’s imperial age. Static waves bobbed like a Monty Python cut-scene as the innovative and revolutionary new style of projection employed at Fisht, which creates an almost 3-D image, allowed Peter to sail west on his virtual ship.

Men dressed in lilac suits then marched across the stadium to soon partake in a beautifully lit ballet scene inspired by celebrated Russian author, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Impressive projections, expertly timed dancing, and extensive use of large set pieces in conjunction with the gantry continued to take viewers on an often confusing journey through the rise and fall of the USSR and the optimistic future Putin has for his country.

A visual wonder no doubt, the show was deeply mired in an assumed knowledge of Russian history that felt like walking into a theater mid-show with no one to fill you in on what you missed.

The Cold War never truly ended. It is alive and well behind the beady eyes of former KGB agent Putin’s tight-lipped, stoic face. Only, instead of nuclear armaments, the bombs he drops are now bags of cash attached to the roots of Russia, sinking it into further financial debt. Putin has a clear and admirable love for his country that is unfortunately superseded by hubris as expansive as Russia itself in an effort to jump up and say, “Hey, pay attention to us. We still matter.”

Another integral part of the ceremony was the “Parade of Nations,” a staple in opening ceremonies. Again, the projection system was expertly used to make it seem as if athletes were emerging from the hearts of their countries. However, how much we can claim the athletes truly represent “their countries” is highly debatable.

No fewer than nine countries feature athletes who were either born in or currently reside in the U.S., many of whom are the only athletes representing that country. In addition, of the few athletes spotlighted during the ceremony, most skiers mentioned live and/or train in either Colorado or Montana leaving the impression that no other locale in the world has powder worthy of an Olympian. Financial executive, Gary di Silvestri, and his wife, an Italian-American couple from Staten Island, N.Y., were granted citizenship to the Caribbean island of Dominica based on “charitable works” and are that country’s only two Olympians despite no other ties to the island. Thus proving that anything in this world, even participation in the Olympic games, has its price tag.

In what can only be equated to the tremor Obi-Wan Kenobi felt through the force when Alderaan was destroyed, Meredith Vieira, in her broadcast journalism excellence, made my heart cry for the future of media when, in mentioning that some countries might seem to be emerging out of order due to the implementation of the Cyrillic alphabet, she prompted the audience to “Google it” if they wanted to know more. One of the many times she tasked her viewership to do their own legwork for her commentary. I expect the Peabody is already en route to her home.

And then there were the more than 2,800 athletes themselves, prideful representations of the finest their countries have to offer proudly marching out in patriotic unison with heads held high … wait. That’s right, most had their eyes glued to the screens of their smart phones as they selfied their way from the depths of Fisht Stadium to their seats; choosing to live life through a 3.5-inch window rather than experience it themselves. How badly does one need a picture of their own face during such a rare and coveted moment? Don’t they know the world’s eye is capturing it for them? Perhaps they should take some sage advice from the good Ms. Vieira; if they need to know what they looked like emerging from the tunnel that badly, Google it.

However, the night’s crowning achievement was the emergence of Team Russia poised to “recapture supremacy” as the opening narration stated. They ran out engulfed in fiery red outfits to the tune of early-2000s Russian pop duo, T.A.T.U.’s song, "They’re Not Gonna Get Us"; a musical act most famous for the lusty lesbian kiss they shared in their debut music video.

Game, set, match, Mr. Putin. Irony prevails.


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