I’m deeply offended by opulence. I think people who eat three meals a day are showing off. I don’t understand expensive watches. If I was ever talked into getting married, diamonds would not be involved. Nor would ceremony. There would be no cake. I drive a ‘99 Ford Taurus that doesn’t have any heat, which to me is a little showy. I have two pairs of shoes and two pairs of jeans, but I’m shy about admitting to my spending on such extravagances. You can only imagine what it was like for me to watch the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.
Sport revels in pageantry: The uniforms, the mascots, the musical interludes, the coronation of heroes, the parades of celebration, retiring numbers to the rafters. When competition is on an international level, that pageantry marries jingoism, and we’re left with a cartoonish representation of who we are as people, where we come from, and what role sport plays in our lives. When a country like Russia, once proud, still proud, with some post-Cold War self-esteem issues, is awarded an Olympic games, we would be left to expect unmatched, unfettered, unapologetic pageantry.
"Welcome to the centre of the universe!"
And so began the Games. Russian TV star Yana Churikova shouted the phrase among swirling crescendos of Tchaikovsky and t.A.T.u., and what followed was so opulent it would make a royal wedding blush. Next came a strange mix of historic documentary and dance, children dressed like Disney extras, a fair amount of hammering, a dash of sickling, lots of Cyrillic, and more children in bright colors. I’m not a opening ceremonies aficionado, but I expect they’re all like this to some extent. By "like this," I mean horribly self-indulgent, and kind of offensive.
Once the entire history of Russia was summarized (and somehow without the use of matryoshka dolls) over the course of 20 minutes that felt like six or seven days, the countries paraded into the stadium. Each country was dressed either as the most offensive caricature of their nation, or a second year design student whose work is informed by Selena Gomez and the explosive nature of Pop Rocks. The Canadians were dressed as Mounties, of course, after the original plan to dress them as polite hockey players with universal healthcare didn’t come to realization. The Swedes were straight from Ikea, the Japanese from anime. The Chinese were stoic. The Jamaicans danced to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” though the music may have only been playing in my head. Some country where it hasn’t snowed since ground brontosaurus was its biggest export paraded its only participant, all smiles and no expectation. The US team’s outfits looked like the July Fourth section at Target exploded. It was all quite awful.
For a moment I may have blacked out, endured a seizure brought on by excessive flashing and excessive, well, excess. When I tuned back in Hall of Fame goaltender Vladislav Tretiak and a petite woman who Paul Henderson never scored on were taking the Olympic torch on its last jog, lighting the flame that will burn for the duration of the games. That’s right: this isn’t just a $52 billion dollar outdoor Wiggles concert. There’s some sporting to be done.
Unfortunately, in these games, the sport takes back seat to both the opulence of the endeavor, and the intolerant oligarchy of its host. Already LGBTQ rights protestors have been arrested before a puck has dropped, a skate laced, a luge luged. Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas raised a rainbow glove palm to the camera after competition. Maas, one of only six openly gay Olympians, is now the answer to the question: Who was the first Sochi Olympian to protest Russia’s archaic anti-gay legislation during the 2014 Games? And I suppose in that answer lies my larger frustration with the opening ceremonies. I kept waiting to spot a small rainbow flag or a You Can Play logo, anything from the athletes showing solidarity and support for a community that is being oppressed by the country that is providing those athletes with the grand stage for what they hope will be their finest hours.
But there were no flags. And there was no support. Except for rainbow Greek mittens and pseudo-rainbow German jackets, neither acknowledged by their nations as potest, but rather happenstance. And if we’re looking to the Greeks and Germans as the voices of reason, we’re all in trouble. And two countries. Just two. And not the one I call home.
Within the maelstrom of opulent noise, indulgent sheen, and radiant jingoism, there was the alarming dichotomy of quiet.
I understand it is not the responsibility of Olympians to make political stands. I understand it, but I don’t agree with it. Olympians are there carrying my passport, wearing my flag, representing my home. With that comes the great responsibility of carrying our moral authority, our righteous indignation, our commitment to a tolerant world, an inclusive world. This, to me, is the very purpose of the Olympics. Its essence. Nations, people coming together in a search not just for personal glory, but vicarious glory, and a glory that is filtered through the prism of nationality.
These Games will come and go. Heroes will be found. Stories written to be forever told. My hope is that they are a safe Games, but also a Games where the opulence of its host, the shame of pageantry over substance, is punished by fearless voices. The opening ceremonies tried to tell the story of Russia, a story that currently finds a strained narrative, with the whole world there to watch, wait, and wonder if this is not the moment where morality and bravery trump opulence. Where a voice will take the opportunity not to just revel in pageantry, but to use it to celebrate a larger purpose.Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJ. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). His next poetry collection, Bourbon & Eventide, is forthcoming in 2014 from Invisible Publishing. Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.