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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

The Sochi Winter Olympics and the truth about the Russian self

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As the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi have shown, mega-events involve mega-politics. The number of medals won is crucial for national prestige, hosting the games is crucial for national pride, and defending one's self-presentation is crucial for national image.

In fact, a political agenda has always been part of the Olympic Games since it began in Greece in 776 BC. The idea was that the Games would cause competing parties to forget old political rivalries and unite under the flag of athletic spirit.

In Sochi, however, it is questionable whether such a unity was achieved. As the Games rolled out, it became obvious that the Cold War was not over. Some of the Western media tried hard to find faults and errors with the Sochi Olympics, and with Russia.

The Olympic Games in both China and Russia have served as fruitful grounds for attacks on these nations' human rights records and the legitimacy of the ruling elite. In Sochi, the Olympics have been affectionately labeled by the western media as "Putin's Games," reflecting the energy and resources that President Putin (at that time prime-minister) put in to secure Sochi as an Olympic host.

But things happen this way in Russia. There is always a patron, a benefactor, a protector–a figure bordering upon a tzar–behind every big national project, be it the navy fleet, the Trans-Siberian Railway, or a large-scale sporting event. Even if the Russian Olympic team is not the strongest one in the Games, the chance for self-promotion is not something a Russian national leader would miss.

With great political goals comes great expenditure. Sochi is the most expensive Winter Olympic Games ever held. But Russians are known to be big spenders: in the Olympics in Moscow in 1980, expenditure far exceeded the gains from hosting the games. Nobody, however, dared mock Russians as greedy spendthrifts.

Unfortunately, the Sochi money spent was not just on infrastructure for the games; it was also lost in the pockets of the people in charge. And, again, here comes the Russian psyche to show off–we are filthy stinking rich and can spend $265 million just on a ski-jump.

Despite all the expense to make it work, Sochi has been divisive from the outset. The heads of France, the UK, and Germany boycotted the games, citing the violation of human rights in Russia, particularly with respect to the maltreatment of homosexual people. Obama's cabinet joined the boycott, conveniently forgetting that in Texas and Alabama homosexuality is still considered a criminal act, and Utah, where the Olympic games were held in 2002, is also one of the "no homo promo states."

The gay theme has been certainly in the foreground of political fencing around the Olympics, with Google joining the race and sporting a rainbow flag on its search page. (There was also suspicion that the colorful costumes of the German national team were also a symbolic response, but one of my German friends commented on this as simply rather poor and shameful design.)

In Russia, however, this controversy generated a movement towards national solidarity. Numerous commentaries have emerged from Russia in response to international criticism, including the NBC's censorship of the opening ceremony. and questioning why Obama is viewed as a nice guy, while Putin is not. YouTube videos are often a humorous way of saying that in Russia we spend money on big things like aerospace technologies and Olympic games infrastructure while the kids have no playgrounds and pensioners scrape money for medicine.

The choice of Sochi as the location for the Winter Olympics also reflects Russian ideas of prestige. A Black Sea resort, it is one of the warmest cities in Russia. In the Russian psyche, Sochi is a kind of ultimate destination, a place you want to retire to, a paradise with sea, fruit, and sun. Not many Russians would associate it with winter at all. In fact, it was largely chosen due to its already-existing infrastructure. The city is full of hotels and eating places, which is not so easy to find in a regular Russian city. Sochi is also a favorite Presidential spot, and to some extent this also explains why it was chosen.

Turning Sochi into a world-class Olympic city required building a railroad link and extensive tunnels, which environmentally speaking are not at all friendly for the ski resort as they create a channel for the transport of warm air from the Black Sea to the mountain slopes of Krasnaya Polyana resort.

It has also been alleged that the relocation of local residents who were living in the wooden houses on the territory of the future Olympic facilities has been mismanaged in Sochi, but this is the issue which plagues many mega-events. For example, before the Expo '98 in Lisbon, Portugal, many Roma families were relocated from the Parque das Nacoes area to Quinta da Fonte in Loures (a suburb of Lisbon). Similar relocation or evictions happened before the London Olympics, where tenants from one housing estate in London were placed to other areas.

Sochi's opening ceremony also spoke volumes about the Russian psyche. Wherever the Olympics are held, the opening ceremony is always a crucial performance for the host, as it provides a chance to display their creative power and artistic genius. This time it was very much dedicated to genesis of New Russia, represented by the letter "я," the last in the word Россия (Russia). When the letters from the Russian ABC book started to be projected on the stadium floor, it was surprising to see how many Russian-American immigrant inventors (such as Zworykin and Sikorsky) and Russian-French artists (such as Chagall and Kandinsky) had been included and remembered at this colorful display recreating some of the important Russian mythomoteurs, like space exploration.

The ceremony featured a dream sequence in which a little girl, Lyuba, is falling asleep with her ABC book and starts flying in her dream over Russian landscapes. Her story is a fascinating journey into the puzzles and alter ego of the Russian soul. It was very symbolic and full of allusions to the Russian popular myths, like the invisible city of Kitezh–a city without fortifications, that can only be approached by people with pure and God-like intentions. The Russian folk myths depicted in Lyuba's dream mixed with the biblical legend of the Great Flood and the dove brining the olive branch. This is a classically Russian mixture of folk beliefs and Orthodox faith.

However, the myth, symbolism, and politics of the Sochi Winter Olympics only gave us a partial glimpse of Russia. The truth about the Russian self (or multiple or multicolored selves) was revealed by the rapid manner in which Russia forgot about most of the scandals surrounding its hosting of the Olympics when the national hockey team lost in the quarter-final to Finland. Russia lost the most important prize it could gain, which according to the Games script, had to be on the last day of the Olympics.

A nation can recover from all kinds of critique, but for Russia, this was game over. No other blow could be more devastating to the national psyche.

As the Games rolled out, it became obvious that the Cold War was not over.

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Logo for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi
Logo for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi