“If you see your face on the screen, please hug your neighbor,” said the woman hosting the hour-long festivities that preceded the 2014 opening ceremony of the Winter Games in Sochi. Around the 40,000-seat Fisht Olympic Stadium, big screens showed what we in America call kiss cams. “Please show your love to the world.”
Mostly, the featured fans just smiled and waved. A few minutes later, the hostess adjusted her tactic. “If you see yourself, you should hug your neighbor,” she said. “That’s the law.”
The theme of this year’s opening ceremony, creative director Konstantin Ernst said in a statement, was love. There was nothing subtle about this; the main character was a little girl named Lubov (I’ll assume you can figure out the translation) who had a dream about a Russia filled with passion, talent, cooperation, and pride.
“I wanted people all over the world to meet, understand, and know us, as Russians,” Ernst explained. “The real Russians, untainted by decades [of] propaganda and the Cold War.” That was our first hint that there would be no mention of certain minor events throughout Russian history, such as, you know, famine and wars, and that certainly was the case.1
Instead, the event, whose length many people on my Twitter timeline compared to War and Peace, was a celebration of the varying impulses, fascinations, and personalities of the Russian people.
There was the mysticism and whimsy — an enormous dancing bear, colorful cathedral onion domes — and there was the hard-nosed industrialism denoted by a whirring of Soviet-era cogs and wheels2 and locomotives and train tracks, all capped off by a terrifying hammer and sickle several stories in height. (This was, without close second, the best part of the show.) There were nods to Russia’s deep appreciation of the arts, from books to ballet, and umpteen snippets of t.A.T.u. songs; the band even performed live before the production began. (So did the Russian police chorus, which sang a rousing rendition of “Get Lucky.”)
Watching the show from the most primo seats, following the parade of nations, were the athletes, each sitting in their little nation-state groups. The juxtapositions of colored sections resembled a global patchwork quilt. There was the Irish team on one end, with their green snowpants, and over there was a huge solid red block of Canadians. Dachhiri Sherpa, the 44-year-old cross-country skier from Nepal, sat alone. Finally, the Russian contingent arrived clad in the outfits of the night: Santa Claus–style fur-rimmed overcoats for the ladies and smart hats for the men.
Regarding outfits, I’m jingoistically declaring Team USA second. Sure, we may have mocked the mom-sweater explosion designed by Ralph Lauren and modeled by poor Zach Parise, but my personal rule with opening ceremony outfits is the more outlandish, the better. They’re like ice dancing costumes that way. (Germany, reliably, understood.)
For all the talk of love, the obvious elephant in the arena was Russia’s official stance on gay rights. (A video that played early in the night had depicted all sorts of loving relationships; one of them did feature two men, but they were steelworkers patting each other on the back and admiring their work after a long day on the job.) I had hoped someone would boldly make a small gesture in support of the LGBT community or somehow disrupt the proceedings, and I had my eyes peeled all night for an errant rainbow flag. It was not to be. But when Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, gave his address near the end of the night, he had some pointed remarks.
“Yes, it is possible, even as competitors, to live together under one roof in harmony, with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason,” he said. “Olympic Games are a sports festival embracing human diversity in great unity.”
They were just words, sure, but given the painstaking diplomacy that surrounds international sport, they stuck out.
Vladimir Putin spoke as well, before the final torch carriers jogged out of Fisht Stadium and into the center of Olympic Park to light the official flame.3 “I declare the 22nd Winter Olympics open,” he said, the one line mandated by the IOC, and that was that.
It may have been the opening ceremony, but it wasn’t really the first day of the Games. A few events began Thursday, and each gave an excellent preview of what we can expect from Sochi’s first weekend.
That morning, I went up to the mountains for the first time. The Sochi Games are split into two regions: There’s the coastal cluster, with its Olympic Park dotted by skating and hockey and curling venues that make it look, from the air, like the face of an enormous rotary phone. And then there’s the true gem of these Games: the jagged, stunning mountain region of Krasnaya Polyana, Putin’s fave place to ski. They’re connected by a now-infamous road and railway (an infrastructure project that cost a reported $8.7 billion). It was a crisp, cloudless day, the kind skiers call “bluebird,” and as the peaks emerged into view there was an audible murmur from all the first-timers to the sight.
Given all the concern about security and surveillance, I had been mildly underwhelmed by the scene at the coast; there haven’t been that many officers or Cossacks around, machine guns are scarce, and they let me bring a huge thing of soda into the media center that is within the “ring of steel.” When I went back to my hotel, I was waved right through the security gate even though I wasn’t wearing my credential.
But the ride to the mountains opened my eyes to the scale and scope of the protective effort. Our credentials were checked once as we boarded, and then scanned before we took off. Everywhere you looked on the hour-plus drive — up in the woodsy hills, down in the rocky river valley — there were men. Some were leaning on police cars, some were pacing, some were making repairs, many were smoking. At one point, we drove by a military-looking drill going on — a few dozen troops standing in regimented formations down by the water. As we got higher into the mountains, white huts with narrow windows began popping up on the side of the road. I could see men inside. They were ostensibly meant to be camouflaged by roadside snowdrifts, but instead they stuck out against the brown ground.
Before we arrived at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, we had to file off the bus to pass through an additional security checkpoint, while the bus also got a thorough scan from a handful of guys. It picked us back up on the other side and we were on our way to the preliminary runs of men’s snowboard slopestyle. When we reached the park, a man boarded and scanned our credentials again before letting us off.
After being exposed for a week to all the gone-viral images of disrepair and disarray around Sochi, TV viewers will undoubtedly be tuning in with ridiculously low expectations. But what they’ll see this opening weekend will likely be stunning, and not just because NBC has a vested interest in making it look that way. Slopestyle is the newest Olympic event, one cribbed from the X Games just as skicross had been back in Vancouver four years ago. These disciplines — known for high-flying jumps and their potential for huge, backbreaking crashes — are catnip for kids and play extraordinarily well on TV.
If you’ve ever been to a ski resort and seen the “terrain parks” off to the side, with their metal rails and tables to slide down or across and their series of jumps built into the hill, you’ve basically seen slopestyle. It’s a judged event, not a race, and competitors basically are free to do whatever they want and put on the sickest show they can.4
One of the Games’ earliest (sports-related) controversies came Wednesday, when Shaun White announced he’d be pulling out of slopestyle to focus his efforts on the halfpipe, where he is the heavyweight champion and has the opportunity to win three consecutive gold medals in the same event. This is his prerogative, sure — swimmers and sprinters do these things, too — but several aspects of the decision and announcement made it something of a dick move.
For one thing, as ESPN.com’s Alyssa Roenigk explained, White wasted everyone’s time at a long-scheduled press conference before walking out and giving the exclusive news of his withdrawal to Today.5 The timing meant no one could replace him on the team; I wouldn’t want to be Brandon Davis, an 18-year-old from California who narrowly missed qualifying and had to hear the news back at home. There had always been a little bit of the vibe that White was bogarting slopestyle, and this didn’t help to dispel that.
When the slopestylers first took to the course early this week, they were almost uniformly overwhelmed by just how extreme it was. They worked with the designer to mellow out some features here and there, which isn’t unusual, and by Thursday a large number of competitors said it was still harrowing, but also great. This is what these guys do. White, though, continued to criticize the design, and given his prominence, his voice has drowned out the others, which is a shame.
Several of White’s competitors made their opinion known.
“Mr. White … It’s easy to find excuses to pull out of a contest when you think you can’t win … ” wrote Sebastien Toutant. His Canadian teammate Maxence Parrot added: “Shaun knows he won’t be able to win the slopes, that’s why he pulled out. He’s scared!”
They later pulled down the tweets, but on Thursday at the slopestyle preliminaries, they made it clear they wouldn’t be backing off.
“All I was saying is if he decided a couple of months ago that he was going to do slopestyle and halfpipe, he knew there was going to be a lot of risk here and in the pipe,” Toutant, a top medal favorite, said. “To take an American spot and to just not do it, I think it’s bad for Americans. One other guy could have been here competing right now.” Next to him a PR rep, far from cutting him off, tried not to smile.
“There’s been a couple contests in a row that he pulled out at the last minute,” Parrot said. “I’m just mad about that because I want to compete against him. I want to know who’s better.”
Everyone from the preliminary round automatically moves on, but the top eight qualified to skip the semis and advance to the final. That group included two Canadians, but none of the U.S. guys. One of the Americans, Sage Kotsenburg, landed a routine filled with creative new moves,6 which earned him 86.5 points; he will have to compete in the semifinals on Saturday morning. He expressed frustration with the judges, saying they weren’t giving him enough credit for his moves because they didn’t recognize how difficult they were. Mark McMorris, a gold-medal favorite who will be competing with a broken rib, had similar thoughts about his score.
“To be honest, you’re going to have to ask [the judges] because I have no clue,” he said. “I didn’t think my run was less technical than anybody else’s and it sure as heck wasn’t sketchy. It felt really solid and clean.”
Thursday night I attended another sport that’s historically even more notorious for its judging drama: figure skating. This is the first Olympics with a “team” event, and Thursday featured the short program in men’s and pairs. Highlights included beloved Russian Evgeni Plushenko’s strength and flair; Japanese skater Yuzuru Hanyu’s graceful and near-seamless performance (he pumped his fists after landing some jumps, and after getting his first-place score, bowed to his teammates); and Canadian pairs team Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, who skated to music composed by Radford to honor their late coach. The United States put forth a subpar performance, with men’s skater Jeremy Abbott in particular having a bit of a meltdown. The competition continues throughout the weekend, and I look forward to more clanging by the Germans’ giant cowbell. (That’s not a euphemism, though it should be.)
I’ll end with a quick side story. My phone rang a few hours ago with a call from an unknown Russian number. I picked up.
“Hello,” a deep voice said. “This is Sochi Police.”
My stomach dropped and all the blood in my body rushed straight to my face. It was happening. I was being kicked out of the Olympics. It was the foil middle finger pic, had to be. Either that or the fact that this morning I opened my blinds and the entire rod ripped off of the wall and I was being blamed for it by Russian officials.
“We found a lost bag with a phone and it had this number listed,” the voice said.
I relaxed, but only a little. I hadn’t heard about anyone losing a bag. Was I being hacked by Russians somehow?! I mean, only 700 people, including my future mother-in-law and my boss, had sent me the article about how we are all getting our identities stolen and our bank accounts drained the very instant we turn anything on. My blow-dryer doesn’t connect to the Internet, but that’s probably been infiltrated as well. I almost hung up the phone then and there.
“Did anyone lose a bag?” I called out, and my guilty coworker’s head snapped up.
The bag, he said, contained mostly cables and a satellite phone. He’d left it on a bus. Pretty much the most suspicious unattended package you can imagine. Given all the stories and stereotypes, I would have expected the police to remotely detonate the damn thing, or at least sell the contents for parts. Instead they went through the generous trouble to arrange a return rendezvous. It was a moment that made us all stop and think a little bit.
Although who knows. They probably bugged it.