Oh what a circus! Oh what a show! Tim Rice
By Roger Childs
What’s in a name?
Not too many people outside Russia and Europe had heard of Sochi before the Winter Olympics. However, from now on the Russian Black Sea resort will be remembered for staging one of most successful sporting spectaculars in modern history. Concerns over possible terrorist attacks came to nothing and the winter carnival proceeded with efficiency and style. However it was at a huge cost and there are plenty of questions on who benefited most from the staging.
Before the Games, the Russians decided to set new standards for the Olympic torch journey and took it to
- the North Pole
- the bottom of Lake Baikal
- the top of Europe’s highest mountain: Mt Elbrus
and out into space!
No expense was spared on the Games and Russian president Vladimir Putin will no doubt bathe in the glory of Russia’s success for some time. There was also delight that the home country capped off the mammoth sporting event with a dramatic closing ceremony and was able to top the medal table.
The magic of the Winter Olympics
The Sochi success comes 18 months after the outstanding Summer Olympics in London. However, whereas the competition and range of activities in the summer version is not specific to the season, the winter version is closely linked to the “cold” sports such as skiing, ski jumping, ice skating and dancing, cross-country skiing, ice hockey and curling.
All the competitions relate to snow and ice, and many sports take place against a background of spectacular mountains.
A lot of the magic of the winter games is linked to speed, danger, style and excitement as the world’s best put on a show.
- competitors in the luge, skeleton and bobsleigh travelling at over 130kmh
- ski jumpers soaring out to over 130m
- cross country skiers in the 30km event climbing over 1000m
- ice skaters and dancers performing to music with wonderful artistry and symmetry
- slopestyle skiers leaping over 30 metres in the air on the downhill runs
- amazing aerobatics in the freestyle aerials and half pipe events.
From small beginning to the most expensive games ever
The founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, was initially against a winter version of the games. However figure skating featured in the London summer games in 1908 and the first separate winter event was held in the French ski resort of Chamonix in 1924.
Things have come a long way since then.
- 1924 Chamonix: Cost $US 28,000,000, 5 sports, 258 participants from 16 nations
- 2014 Sochi: Cost $US 51,000,000,000, 15 sports, 2800+ participants from 88 nations
The Sochi games are in fact the most expensive Olympics ever, an enormous cost for a nation where there are huge contrasts in living standards and widespread hardship and poverty.
The costs escalated once the Russians made the decision to hold the stadium events (opening and closing ceremonies, ice hockey, ice and speed skating, dance, curling etc) in the coastal location of Sochi and the outside alpine events 50kms inland at Krasnaya Polyana. The transport facilities linking the two sites alone cost over $US 7 billion.
Controversy, criticism and corruption
…critics claim that the huge cost of the Games, the most expensive in history, and alleged corruption are evidence of endemic problems. Up to a third of the budget is said to have been swallowed up by kickbacks and bribes, although Putin denies this. Owen Gibson, The Guardian.
There has been plenty of other criticism in the lead up the games:
- claims of bribery over Sochi getting the nod for 2014
- corruption in providing services
- cronyism in awarding contracts to Putin supporters
- criticism of Russia’s restrictions on free speech, freedom of movement and gay rights
- concern over environmental damage in building the facilities
- excessive security.
There were also major concerns over possible terrorist threats as a number of groups threatened to derail the Games.
Let’s hear it for the athletes
Nevertheless, whatever the costs and corruption in providing them, the facilities were superb and the athletes were very happy with the accommodation, courses and venues. For the viewing public on the spot and hundreds of millions watching television around the world, the participants turned on a fantastic show across all the disciplines and the organisers choreographed spectacular opening and closing ceremonies.
There were the usual handful of accidents, positive drug tests, judging scandals (most notably in the women’s figure-skating) and hopelessly outclassed performers, however the elite athletes did the Olympics proud.
For New Zealand there were high hopes of a medal to go with our lone silver which Annelise Coberger won in the 1992 slalom at Albertville in France. Sadly our freestyle skier, the cheerful and expressive Jossi Wells, just missed out on winning the bronze medal in the halfpipe. However the Kiwi goal of four top eight finishes was achieved.
In other events there was the traditional dominance of countries in particular events and clean medal sweeps for the
- Dutch in many individual speed skating events (they are amazing!)
- Russians in the men’s 50km cross-country
- Norwegians in the women’s 30km cross-country
- French in the men’s ski crossstyle
- Americans in the ski slopestyle.
Across the board there were performances of the highest quality and plenty of thrills and spills. And there were some surprising results. Traditional ice hockey powerhouse the USA was thrashed 5-0 by Finland in the bronze medal playoff.
Ending with bang
Through you (the athletes), everybody with an open mind, could see the face of the new Russia: efficient and friendly, patriotic and open to the world. International Olympic Committee President, Thomas Bach, gives a none too subtle message to the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin
Olympic closing ceremonies are traditionally spectacular shows and Sochi didn’t disappoint. There were of course the formalities of speeches, singing national anthems, raising flags, putting out the flame (done by the mascot bear) and handing over the Olympic flag to the mayor of the next host city Pyeong Chang, South Korea.
However once the athletes had poured into the stadium in a great melee of nationalities it was a wonderfully colourful and creative spectacle. It was time for a showcase of Russian history, tradition, sport and culture. So the greatest show on earth included
- a journey for three children through wondrously symbolic land and seascapes
- a celebration of Russian music, art, literature, circus and dance
- a rapid fire visual display of the Sochi competitions: winners and losers, and the mixed emotions of elation, humour, sadness and despair
- amazing set, textural and colour changes using the latest technology on the stadium surface, under it, above it and across it.
And of course there was a grand finale with 2000 children holding candles amongst the three huge animal mascots and yellow mimosa petals falling like rain inside, while outside a crescendo of fireworks lit up the Sochi sky.
But wait there’s more! The Winter Paralympics take place from 7-16 March at the same venues.