Home / Olympics / Sochi 2014: New Russia revels in the success of the perfect made-for-TV Winter Olympics

Sochi 2014: New Russia revels in the success of the perfect made-for-TV Winter Olympics


A cool show: performers take part in the Closing Ceremony at the end of the Sochi Winter Olympics Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Often weird, often wonderful and always endlessly fascinating, the XXII Winter
Games, the most expensive and ambitious of all Olympics, concluded here in
Sochi last night with Russians glowing with pride in its success as they
celebrated with one last closing ceremony extravaganza in the Fisht Stadium.

Why wouldn’t they? The hosts had staged an event of extraordinary magnitude
and complexity and pulled it off. Their venues were space-age, their crowds
enthusiastic and vast and their athletes ruled the medal table once more.

Even their policemen and soldiers, amid the gargantuan but rarely oppressive
security operation, never stopped smiling. The hosts could even laugh at
themselves, with glittery dancers at the closing ceremony forming the five
rings, even re-enacting the failure of the opening ceremony a fortnight ago
when a snowflake, which was supposed to turn into one of the rings, failed
to open. Cue laughter all round.

“A great Games,” Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee President,
in charge of the circus for the first time, called them here yesterday, just
as Lord Coe had done. “A really special experience.”

You could argue with the first verdict – good, rather than great, perhaps –
but the experience truly was surreally extraordinary, as it was probably
always bound to be at the least wintry Games in 90 years, where you could
stroll in shirt sleeves to the ice palaces past palm trees and beneath a
blazing sun.

There were insane contrasts and we are not just talking Vanessa-Mae,
international violin superstar-turned-Eddie Edwards in lipgloss, versus the
world’s best skiers.

Stadia and venues of fabulous, pristine excellence shone beside vast areas of
depressing, unfinished infrastructure, like the eerily sad and empty
Disneyland-style funfair looming over the park. Will that ever open, you
could not help but wonder.

It was, asserted Russia’s deputy prime minister Dmitry Kozak, the Games where
“smiley faces, Sochi’s warm sunshine and the glow of the Olympic gold have
melted the ice of scepticism about the new Russia. The Games made our
country, our culture, our people closer and easier to understand for the
whole world”.

Maybe but that was a bold claim to make after the images of protest band Pussy
Riot being horsewhipped by Cossacks hit the internet, while riots in
neighbouring Ukraine raged. It did not do to protest in Sochi. Few
ultimately had the nerve or the inclination to try. The much-vaunted protest
zone, out of sight and out of mind, was last seen populated by a few mums
pushing prams around.

Yet Kozak was right about the image presented to the world. Sochi looked great
and when three Russian cross-country skiers lunged for the line together
after 50km for a medal clean sweep here yesterday on the final morning at
the Laura Centre high in the Caucasus mountains, one of the most beautiful
venues any Games surely ever laid claim to, it was the perfect final
snapshot for these most photogenic of Olympics, the perfect made-for-TV

The nation had coveted an ice hockey gold as its perfect farewell gift
yesterday but that dream had, sadly, long disappeared as another image held
sway after the quarter-final exit. That of the Russian coach Zinetula
Bilyaletdinov lugubriously telling local reporters: “Well, eat me now. Eat
me and I’ll be gone.”

Still, a total of 13 golds and 33 medals, more than any other nation, was the
return Vladimir Putin had demanded for an outlay of £31 billion, shifting
the Russians from 11th in the medal table in Vancouver to top of the fir

That sort of money, Putin was right, could buy you the most amazing of all
Games, built out of nothing and gigantic in scale. Too big, if truth be
told. Even the Olympic Park, when populated by tens of thousands of
spectators, seemed too vast for purpose, making you wonder, despite the
promises of how the venues will be utilised to the full in the future, what
can honestly become of it.

This is not just Sochi’s problem, of course. The spending on Olympics has for
long been too out of control to be ignored any longer. This felt like the
tipping point for five-ringed indulgence. Surely it has to be the last of
the elephantine Games.

Not that you would have found any of the athletes here suggesting that. It
was, ultimately, a Games made and tailored for them at venues they
positively swooned over. Nothing wrong in that, of course.

How Putin, beaming contentedly here last night, will have revelled in this
triumph. Never mind that three Russian golds should be won by the world’s
best short track speed skater, a South Korean superstar now renamed Viktor
Ahn after his citizenship was fast-tracked, and two more by an American-born
and bred snowboarder, Vic Wild, who competed for them after marrying another
Russian medal-winning snowboarder, Alena Zavarzina.

On the Kremlin website Putin congratulated Wild on Saturday because he
“withstood a fierce battle and formidable rivals”. Russia’s leader heaping
praise on a good ol’ boy from White Salmon, Washington State? Wonderful.

But then the world really is changing, as the picture of the happy couple, Vic
and Alena, turning old Cold War frostiness into a warming love story,

This felt like an Olympics where the youthful brashness of the X Games
generation really came of age. “Hot. Cool. Yours” was the Games’ fitting
motto. Or as the magnificently barking Swiss-Russian Iouri “iPod”
Podladtchikov put it as he clutched his snowboard halfpipe gold: “Hot, cool
and it’s f—— mine.”

NBC paid $775m for the rights and they did not splash out for Dutch long track
speed skaters monotonously winning 23 of the 36 medals available, nor German
lugers winning all four golds. No, they wanted slopestylers and freestylers
bringing a ‘wow’ factor that must make guardians of traditional Alpine
sports feel nervous that they will one day be eclipsed by these acrobatic
daredevil newbies.

The next event to hit the Olympic slopes, they say, is ‘Big Air’, a more
extreme form of slopestyling. Ever more dangerous and thrilling. Yet as
crashes littered the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, it was sobering to think that
in a Munich hospital, the Russian ski cross athlete Maria Komissarova was
still lying with a broken back.

They are a different breed of athlete in a different world and with a
different language. Explaining why American Joss Christensen won the gold in
the ski slopestyle, Swedish judge Simon Tjernstroem said: “Switch right-side
gap 270 on, pretzel 270 out on the down-flat-down; switch on, 450 out of the
up rail, to left side 270 on, pretzel 270 off on the down; to a butter,
switch slide to corked 450 off on the cannon feature.” Cheers, Simon…

The good news? Britain, celebrating six top 10 finishes in ski and snowboard
events, now thrive in this mad, mad world with the likes of new
personalities like Jenny Jones, Billy Morgan and James ’call me Woodsy’

According to Mike Hay, Team GB’s chef de mission, thrilled with the
record-equalling haul of four medals and 14 top 10 finishes in all events,
they look like the future. “That’s where we should focus, where we have real
talent and that talent comes from the snowdomes across our country.”

So it’s the Fridge Kids’ time. Coe thought this young crew were “an
inspiration” in a Games which he was sure had sculpted new personalities
back home; Elise Christie’s tales of woe, oddly, made her short track races
unmissable theatre.

In the end, after all the fears and the controversies and the politicking,
mercifully it did become all about the athletes, from the dethroned king
Shaun White to those sensational, soaring women ski jumpers to our very own
Archers-loving, knitter-cum-slider Lizzy Yarnold. Nobody is going to forget
Sochi in a hurry.

Originally posted here: 

Sochi 2014: New Russia revels in the success of the perfect made-for-TV Winter Olympics

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