Well, we’re finally here — the Russian Olympic Games are upon us, and yet we still have much to discern to about our host country. We know that we are no longer dealing with the land of czars, nor with the Communist Party. Rather, as has been a popular refrain with the IOC in recent months, 21st century-Russia is a land of paradoxes.
What does that mean in practical terms? It’s the lifestyle difference between Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov and the Yupik fishermen of eastern Siberia. It’s the aesthetic difference between the onion domes of the Kremlin and the concrete blocks that still dominate the landscape in mining towns like Norilsk. It’s the difference in frugality between the money-is-no-object Olympic Games and the austerity measures that will be sure to come for the Russian economy, which is now slowly creeping towards a crisis.
But, of course, we will hear nothing about that last bit while the focus is on Sochi.
To connect a cluster of coastal venues to the mountain venues in the north, the Russians built a linking railway that cost over $9.4 billion, a sum that, alone, is more than Canada spent on the entire Vancouver Games in 2010.
Then, of course, there is the nameless set of Olympic mascots who will be juxtaposed curiously against the Sochi landscape: The Polar Bear, The Hare and The Leopard, which — though not usually considered particularly Russian, or even particularly wintry (we’re not even talking about a snow leopard here) — gets a coveted spot in Olympic history because it is the favorite animal of Vladimir Putin (who is said to have insisted on a leopard-inclusive marketing plan). Even Sochi’s slogan, “Hot. Cool. Yours,” though officially meant to contrast the coolness of the temperature with the warmth of Russian hospitality, clearly entertains a double entendre. “Hot” and “cool” are synonyms for “sexy” and “impressive” in American slang, and slangy-American is very much the ideal of the Russian nouveau riche.
The New Yorker recently published a piece about an unlikely Olympic controversy, namely the minimalistic and understated “mirror logo” which will be dyed onto Sochi’s ice skating rinks and hung on banners around the alpine mountain runs. The logo uses the same characters for Sochi and 2014, perhaps inferring that Sochi is indeed modern enough — a claim that has been disputed by Russia’s archaic political policies. Apparently, the community of professional graphic designers has, in general, panned the logo for its simplicity and its affront to the Olympic tradition of pomp and circumstance ¾ remember, every Olympics is a circus … this one just happens to be a Russian circus. But I disagree with the critics who are saying that this logo is not appropriate. In fact, I think that the mirror logo fits in perfectly with our theme of contrasts — it is quite possibly the only understated thing about these Games, and to infer that 2014 seems to be Sochi’s mirror image is a coded contrast in its own right.
Look, I suppose my overarching point is that, although there are many things to watch for in the next two weeks, we must not forget to watch Russia herself. Politically, culturally and economically, our society has had a truly rough time deciding exactly what to make of Russia. Is it an autocracy or a democracy? Does the black market rule, or has capitalism found a foothold? I think that, right now, all we can be sure of is that Russia is currently a place of seemingly contradictory truths — but all of these strange juxtapositions should make for quite a spectacle.
Ben Moss is hot. Cool. Yours.