There are two approaches to watching the Olympics—and to listening to them. The first is to sail over the contradictions of the Games like you’ve launched from the ninety-meter jump: lean out over your skis, flutter your hands, and fly past the Coke cans, spent Viagra packaging, Chicken McNuggets cartons and other global garbage littering the remnants of the snowpack below. The other is far more fun: stay on the ground amongst the detritus and when you come to a clearing drop to your belly and pull out your rifle. Then get the ugliest rubbish in your crosshairs and fire away like a biathlon gold-medalist gone postal.
The biggest and easiest target is the place itself. Contesting boreal events on the sub-tropical shores of the Black Sea even with the imposing Caucus Mountains above is absurd on the face of it, even more so in an age of looming climate catastrophe. Since the flight of Canadian NHL franchises south, 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, even forgetting about the threat of terrorist attack.
Sochi is richer in contradictions than wintery weather. After all it’s Russia’s summer capital, as one learns in myriad unexpected ways in the Sochi Project, a riveting but never hurried account of Russia’s imperial Olympic ambitions that places them in their colorful and tragic geographic, cultural, and historical contexts. Creators of this treasure trove are the intrepid self-styled “slow journalists” from The Netherlands, Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen, respectively photographer and writer/filmmaker. They’ve lately been refused entry into Russia for the Games themselves on account of the richly textured and undeniable truths they lay bare in their project.
Sochi is “like Florida only cheaper” we learn in Hornstra and van Bruggen’s first chapter. The metropolitan area is a sprawling stretch of holiday mayhem extending more than a hundred miles along the Black Sea shoreline filled with trinket shops and bad restaurants, vast 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 singing labors.
With these working Sochi singers in mind it was amusing to take potshots during the Opening Ceremonies at the kitschy myths of Mother Russia floating by on clouds through the midst of the stadium and bathed garish colors that would have had the late great Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky not just spinning in his grave, but digging deeper as fast as he could to put more distance between him and the bad taste lighting up the world stage. I would have liked to see the real Sochi singers up there on those clouds.
Russia is plagued by feelings of inferiority on account of their lack of pop stars of truly international celebrity, elevating such figures to global fame only, as in the case of Pussy Riot, by jailing them. The organizers, with Putin breathing down their necks, 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 processed in with other luminaries and later conducted various warhorses from Borodin, Tchaikovksy, and Stravinsky.
Another chum of the iron-fisted Russian president is opera singer Anna Netrebko, charged with the dubious honor of singing the mandatory Olympic Anthem. This 19th-century behemoth was composed for the first modern games in Athens in 1896, its Greek composer, Spyridon Samaras and poet, Kostis Palamas, chosen by the Greek head of the first Olympic Committee, Demetrius Vieklas. Described by its creators as a chorale cantata, the work is a nearly ten-minute heap of bombast and cliché: heroic fanfares wrestling for time with chorale outbursts in a harmonic style shared with 19th-century national anthems and their close kin, those dismal Protestant hymns of the colonial age. Pretty dreadful stuff. 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 from 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 a seemingly endless four minutes shackled to the American anthem at the most recent Super Bowl, it seemed only fair that her Russian counterpart, Netrebko, should be sentenced to a full performance of the Olympic Hymn at Sochi. Backed by a male chorus in blinding white tailcoats, the soprano wore a windex-blue gown that evoked less the once icy ravines of the Caucus mountains than an animated bottle of windshield de-icing fluid, though I admit she 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 summoned from the original Games: the discus thrower (with genitals carefully shadowed from view) 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 the two biggest of the many easy targets to be knocked off over the ensuing days of sport; 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.”