WASHINGTON, February 10, 2014 – The arts have always played a vital part in the Olympic games, but few remember a gold medal being awarded in sculpting. Yet between 1912 and 1948, Olympic medals were awarded in literature, architecture, music, sculpture, and painting, fulfilling Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin’s vision of a well balanced man.
When in 1949 the artistic categories were discontinued, it was only because it was decided that artistic competitors qualified as professionals and therefore disqualified from Olympic competition.
The last holdover from this golden age of the meeting of athletics and art is the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. A cultural event of the highest order, these events allow a nation to display their history through the work of their greatest artists, creating a fitting welcome for an international gathering.
In Vancouver it seemed that organizers did their utmost to forward the unjust stereotype of shallow Canadian culture, preferring jokes about urinating in snow to the showcasing of the city’s considerable cultural resources.
The British took the ball and ran with it straight downhill, crafting a ceremony which ignored the most impressive aspects of British culture while instead glorifying their public health system, cellphone texting, rap music, and a vapid homage to pop culture not worthy of mention.
What was on display was the decay of Western culture into a glorification of the lowest common denominator, and the aesthetic result was beyond nauseating.
Standing in stark relieft to these recent bungled efforts, the Sochi opening ceremonies were a pageant of culture, art, music, technology, and history on a grand scale. Ignoring both the politically real and culturally fabricated political controversies surrounding the games, the ceremony moved past the petty and gave us the best that Russia had to offer.
It began with a video relating each letter in the Cyrillic alphabet to a famous figure, place, or event in the Russian story. The very first image was that of a religious icon, showing that the creative voices in the ceremony would not shy away from their religious heritage. Another letter was related to “Russian Empire,” a nod towards the mixed legacy of an imperialistic past which the Brits in their own opening ceremony simply forgot to mention.
The video was followed by the first live action of the event: a single prototypical Russian girl bringing a large kite into flight, allowing it to transport her into the sky and into the vast history of the Russian people. As continents soared by in mid-air, NBC unfortunately cut to commercial.
What followed after the ads was a rousing and muscular rendition of the Russian National anthem, sung by an all male monastery choir. As the choir sang, people on the stadium floor formed into a Russian flag blowing in the breeze, an old but always effective marching trick.
In a welcome change to previous ceremonies, Sochi then allowed the athletes to march in and take a seat, giving them an opportunity to witness the artistic pageantry of the opening ceremonies firsthand. It was at this symbolic moment where the best mixed with the best, and the result was purely magical.
After the parade of nations viewers were transported into the mists of Russian prehistory, set to the very appropriate musical selection of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Using a newly developed projection system which turned the floor of the stadium into a 3D backdrop, the presentation moved quickly through many centuries of Russian history.
Along the way viewers were treated to the best in Russian music, art, and dance, along with the special privilege of watching an extended theatrical sequence representing the time of the Czars as expressed through the movements of the impeccable Bolshoi Ballet.
Breezing through two revolutions and a brief but chilling nod towards the Second World War, the theatrics transitioned into a highly stylized and extended sequence paying homage to the Soviet Union. This red tribute was disturbing in its portrayal of the industrialization of the nation – and the mechanization of its individuals – but also a bit idealistic in its effervescent representation of the urban culture of the time.
By the time organizers trotted out Anna Netrebko to sing the Olympic anthem, you knew they were showing off. As a fitting finale, the Olympic torch was lit to the always exciting and – in this case entirely appropriate – “Firebird” by Igor Stravinsky.
One must acknowledge that the ceremony organizers clearly glossed over some dark chapters in Russian history, as the NBC commentators were quick to pounce on. There was a fair bit of propaganda involved as well, as Russia – like China before her – tried to show the world a picture of modernity and strength coupled with the foundation of ancient culture. Yet despite these glaring defects, the Russians deserve immense credit for setting the cultural ship right again and reestablishing a high standard for Olympic Opening Ceremonies.
Gone was the lowbrow pandering, gone was the attempt to self-consciously deny that such ceremonies deserve the best and highest, and gone was the fear of political incorrectness regarding more unpopular portions of a nation’s history. Russia gave the world her best to start out these historical Olympic games, and may have saved a great aesthetic tradition in the process.
For that, amidst controversies real and contrived, she deserves our praise.
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