In hockey, the story of the Sochi Olympics was the shame of the Russians. From the start, even after Ovechkin scored a goal barely a minute into their game against Slovenia, they looked nervous. American commentators joked about Putin’s presence in the stands. Russian commentators did not joke about it. They couldn’t understand why their team looked so ill at ease. And, watching the other teams play—the massive Canadians, the fleet Americans, the efficient Swedes—they couldn’t see anything good coming.
It was the Finns who knocked off the Russians, in the end. But before the Finns they were undone already by their arrogance and indecision. What else was it but arrogance to start their second-string goalie (Varlamov) in an elimination game when their first-string goalie (Bobrovsky) was playing world-class hockey? It was arrogance (and maybe politics, a little) that had the Russian coach rotating three five-man units even when things were desperate in the final period against the Finns. And what else but arrogance is it for a nation not to have produced a world-class defenseman in something like forty years?
Canada has now won the past two Olympic golds in hockey, and in these Olympics they never trailed. This is, in a way, as it should be: Canada invented the game and dominated it until the Soviets started sending professional players to this amateur tournament, and then, of course, the Olympics changed the rules. So Canada winning the gold should not be a surprise: it is status quo ante, a return to the way things have always been.
Increasingly the Soviet experiment, in politics and hockey both, looks like a giant parenthesis over which the 19th and 21st centuries step with increasing ease in their communication with one another. But is this a good thing? The Soviets taught us many incredible things about hockey: they showed us precision passing, teamwork, and remarkable open-ice skating. These are not all things we should throw into the dustbin of history. Also, defense. I hope that somewhere in Chelyabinsk, Ufa, Magnitogorsk, or Kazan, young people are learning to skate backward again.
Why, given that the wider context is Russia, hold the Winter Olympics in a subtropical resort town? Western outlets have mostly described the choice as a bonkers misstep, akin to organizing a piss-up in a car park subject to open-container laws directly next to a brewery.
A few weeks before the Olympics began, I put together a guest lecture for architects Morgan Lewis and Tyler Putnam, this year’s recipients of Cooper Union’s Menschel Fellowship for exciting, explorer-type research, and they see things differently. They spent last summer investigating the spectacular disaster of Central Asia’s drying Aral Sea, examining the repercussions of Stalin’s “Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature.” We kept emailing after the lecture, and our talk turned to Sochi, which they see not as a regeneration drive but as a reengagement with grand Soviet interventions into the landscape itself.
For them, Putin’s magnificent defiance in the face of the far-flung and meteorologically inapt is the point. Stalin’s herculean post–World War II programs tried to bind Central Asia to the center via a crop-growing strategy in an area absolutely unsuited to the growing of crops. Lewis and Putnam put St. Petersburg, the Russian petroleum industry, and the Trans-Siberian Railway into the same category: attempts to deal with Russia’s own massiveness via gestures of their own incomprehensible enormity. “Come to think of it,” the architects said, “Russia is rather a silly place to build such a big country.”
Conquering nature through engineering; impressing border-dwelling locals while stitching the region economically to the center; an exoticized peripheral zone in need of Putin’s loving care (think of those bears he is always either hunting or protecting); the belief, in the architects’ words, that you cannot spend enough on heroic infrastructure: the difficulty and wastefulness of the project itself proves its grand validity. In the long run, Sochi might not be forgotten. The resort towns of that part of the world are popular and wildly highly regarded—Lewis describes the resorts at Riga and Lake Baikal as “like the Riviera—big shades, no trousers.” Old-school, popular, and a lot of fun. Whether through the mingled sweat and tears of construction workers or figure skaters, Sochi is becoming a transcendent natural event. Those who built it assume a place in history as well as at the Black Sea’s edge.
I have no interesting way of understanding the Olympics. If I muted NBC’s relentless commentary, which consists of trite profiles of attractive athletes and vague allusions to their technique, I would have no way of judging why one minor ski pole disaster is more devastating than another. These commentaries substitute the need for knowledge of the rules with appeals to pathos, which is helpful, since most people don’t know the rules of any of these sports.
Most people do have feelings, though, and I would still like to know what it feels like to be 15-year-old figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya as she extends her leg straight above her head while balancing on the rough equivalent of a kitchen knife. What is actually at stake for her? The commentators tell me that she worked very hard to get here, that she is very precocious, and I believe them, but everyone at the Olympics is special. Watching each event, I secretly long for some real intrigue, something Tonya Harding-esque. Instead I hear about the importance of teamwork or overcoming adversity, plus appeals to nationalism. These segments are so bland that they don’t even seem to refer to sentient people, much less to star athletes participating in the most important competitions of their lives.
Since I do not like what the NBC-broadcasted Olympics presumes about my credulity, I’m left with the sports themselves. I prefer the instant gratification of trick-based events, but everything flatlines after fifteen minutes or so. The repetition that inheres in Olympic competition deadens the intrigue, which is especially the case for endurance-based sports. I cannot get excited about men and women scooting along a landscape of dead trees and ice for an hour and a half.
I may be wrong. My friend says I should be more willing to submit myself to something that isn’t immediately entertaining—as though the Olympics were an art film or a modernist novel—especially something that happens so infrequently. And so many people love the Olympics! Even if this is true, being wrong didn’t make the Olympics any more fun to watch, and they were on every day during dinnertime for three weeks.
Slopestyle is an event where you ski or snowboard down a hill equipped with rails and ramps, trying to perform difficult tricks. The ski version made its debut at Sochi. So did ski half-pipe. Along with men’s and women’s ski “aerials” and the snowboarding versions of half-pipe and slopestyle, these competitions are all decided by judges, who award or deduct points for clean landings or sloppy form.
I believe these soaring, spinning athletes should embrace their sport’s closeness to figure skating and compete in sequined costumes to classical music. The easygoing American snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg probably would not mind. He won the gold in men’s snowboard slopestyle, and when the Washington Post asked him what he did to mentally prepare the night before his run, he said, “I was eating mad snacks. Chocolate. Onion rings. Chips. We were chilling really hard. Then we fell asleep watching ‘Fight Club.’ Getting stoked, you know?” I like to think that 18-year-old freeskier Torin Yater-Wallace chipped in to the snack stash. He was photographed coming out of the Olympic Village McDonalds one night with ten or so cheeseburgers on a tray. In the photo, his eyes are half-closed and he is grinning.
Yater-Wallace was born in Aspen. Kotsenburg grew up in Idaho and Utah. Almost everyone on the American ski and snowboard teams, men and women both, lives in Colorado or Wyoming or Utah or someplace, and when I was a teenager I idolized people like them. During the summers, they led the whitewater rafting trips my family would go on while visiting my grandparents in Boise. When it got cold and the rivers closed down, they all went to various mountains to work the lifts, ski, smoke weed, be very healthy, and look great.
I can ski, too. I haven’t done it in years, but watching the downhill and the slalom, I could remember enough of the physical experience to feel the enormous distance between what my body could do then and what the skiers’ bodies are currently capable of. I felt this distance most acutely when Mikaela Shiffrin, an 18-year-old from Vail, Colorado, made a mistake during her second slalom run. She misjudged a turn, both her skis came off the ground, her left leg flailed out to her side, and then she recovered and hit the next turn like nothing had happened at all. She won the gold medal. She listens to “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk before every run. These have to be some of the happiest people on earth.
I don’t like that most of the Winter Olympics’ most prominent sports are governed by judges, who quantify triple lutzes and various landings to tenths or even hundredths of a point. What are these judges scoring, exactly—Artistry? Swag? Style? It’s hard to say.
Figure skating and its variants are very thoroughly judged, and as a spectator, all you have to go on is your own ignorance. Your friend thinks the one skating to Beyoncé in sequins will win. You’re convinced it’s going to be lace and Wagner. The whole spectacle is a barrage of sartorial and sonic choices coupled with feats of athleticism. It is entrancing and disorienting, and the only thing you know for sure is that a skater who falls is finished.
Maybe it’s unfair to pick on figure skating, because the judges turn out to be everywhere. Moguls skiing goes: bumps, flip, bumps, flip, bumps, finish. The bumps are timed, the flips are judged, and everything gets added together. Then you have trick snowboarding and skiing. Judges are asked to consider “difficulty,” “amplitude,” “progression,” and other factors, but there are no objective criteria by which any of these qualities are supposed to be scored. There are even judges in ski jumping, where flying the farthest is apparently not enough. Athletes win points for the best flying squirrel impression and for the perfect Telemark landing.
Judging is a veiled project of assimilation. It rewards athletes for sameness and also forecloses the multiple paths to victory that are one of the essential pleasures of sports. What about the overmatched hockey team that ekes out a win over the heavy favorites? What about the biathlete who starts off with bad crashes and a terrible first shooting round, only to storm back as her competitors falter in the driving snow. She beats the Slovenian powerhouse with a desperate lunge across the line. Amazing! There is more to athletic style than what judges can account for, and if left unbothered by quantification, style has no problem expressing itself.
—Cosme Del Rosario-Bell
For anyone committed to the vision of an international future, the Olympics are a double-edged sword. On the one hand there is the petty chauvinism, vulgar triumphalism, and racism—implicit or explicit—that defines the entire experience from commentary on down. Worse, there is the decidedly ugly history of the Games’ instrumentalization by charismatic leaders in the service of militarist and xenophobic projects. On the other hand, there are worse models for the future fate of national identity then sports fandom. The difference between the antipathy linking Red Sox and Yankee fans and that connecting partisans of Russian and American hockey is the extent to which this dislike is reflected in governing institutions. So long as the fallout from global economic crises is distributed along national lines and through national channels, distinct national identities will continue to reflect a real difference in historical experience and understanding, be it triumphant or traumatic. This is dangerous.
However, once these institutions are removed or reorganized, the seething undercurrent of collective violence will go with them, if not the quixotic passion and general tastelessness of national belonging as such. Red Sox and Yankee fans detest each other, but the possibility of war between Massachusetts and New York is nonexistent, parking lot fights notwithstanding. And so will it be in the future between Russia and the US; still angry, still gross, still illegible to the faithless, but no more than that. You won’t have to watch if you don’t want to.
One day during the Olympics, I arrived at work to find my colleagues watching a projected video of the Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko performing his famous “Sexbomb” routine. The original Tom Jones soundtrack had been replaced by Ginuwine’s “Pony,” but I recognized the moves immediately, and I shivered with a mixture of terror and pleasant nostalgia.
Plushenko performed his famous “Sexbomb” dance in 2001. I was 9 years old and just about done with figure skating, it having become obvious by that point that I was too tall, but I still remembered how to jump and do sit spins, and watching Plushenko was exhilarating because I knew the physical language he was speaking. I loved the show he put on at the World Championships—it was indecent and it was fun. He rolled across the ice with elastic agility, he briefly leapt into the audience, he performed “death drop” jumps, which are a kind of flying spin. Those who founded the spectacle we are discussing—that is, the Ancient Greeks—were familiar with the pairing of plasticity and danger. In Pindar’s Pythian 8, written to commemorate a victory by Aristomenes, an athlete from Aegina, we read: “Man is the dream of a shadow. But when the brilliance given by Zeus comes, a shining light is on man, and a gentle lifetime.” However, when Plushenko started stripping on ice, revealing a fake muscle shirt, complete with six-pack abs, and a golden Speedo, my colleagues gasped in horror. “That’s so tacky! And weird!” they said. I was mortified.
At Sochi, Plushenko participated in both the short and free skate segments of the team competition, but then he aggravated a spine injury while warming up for his individual short program and immediately announced his retirement. In an instant, Russian websites flooded with comments. Furious men used caps lock to explain how much they hated the “fucker” for betraying his country, “chickening out like this.” They said he lacked competitive spirit and guts, and they eventually accused him of treason. Plushenko’s place in the Olympics had come at the expense of Maxim Kovtun, a talented 18-year-old. If Plushenko had just admitted there was a risk that one of his artificial spinal discs would break, Kovtun could have competed against the equally young Japanese skater Yuzuru Hanyū. Plushenko, in his own words, had “wanted to do the impossible.” He failed.
Other people, though—mostly women—were all-accepting. “My heart just skipped a beat,” one wrote. “What a GORGEOUS, TALENTED MAN. I’m going to miss him so much.” These women had also seen the “Sexbomb” performance, and unlike me they had never forgotten it. They had kept it “in their hearts,” which were now beating like crazy.
What had I missed in the last ten years? I searched the Internet. In 2008, Plushenko performed at the Eurovision Song Contest, skating on a tiny patch of ice to a song called “Believe,” serenaded by Dima Bilan, who carries as much pop-culture weight in Russia as Justin Bieber does in the US. They won the contest, and then Plushenko married Yana Rudkovskaya, Bilan’s producer, who later became Plushenko’s manager. They now have a year-old son with his own Twitter account, comprising pictures of Russian pop stars kissing him on the forehead as though bestowing a blessing. I watched a video of the couple (mostly of Yana, dressed in fur, indoors), showing the camera around their St. Petersburg apartment, which had been “designed solely by Yana herself.” It was finished in white and silver tones so that Plushenko, the Ice King, would be “always reminded of the field of battle.”
In 2006, Plushenko joined a social-democratic political party, “A Just Russia,” and in 2007 he became part of the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly. He resigned in 2010 because of issues with a member of Putin’s “United Russia” party, Vitaly Milonov, the main advocate of anti-gay laws. In interviews, Plushenko speaks plainly (he was born in Solnechy, Khabarovsk Krai a tiny village in the far east of the Soviet Union) but with evident pride in his accomplishments. He shows all his medals, each of them differently designed, and he remembers how he won the World Junior Championship at 14, became his family’s primary breadwinner, and bought his father a car. “I am an athlete!” he repeats. “And I am an absolute favorite. … I also knew I wanted to participate in what would be my fourth Winter Olympics season in a row.”
After Sochi, Plushenko received the Order of Honor. Putin presented the prize to him personally and, shaking his hand, wished him a quick recovery. “To know that our leader is informed about my health condition is really an honor,” Evgeni confessed to Dozhd’, Russia’s TV channel.
I wondered if I should have ever watched those videos revealing Plushenko’s pop affiliations and affectionate attitude towards “our leader.” In Moscow, where I’m from, many erudite people engage in their own kind of sport, i.e., forming harsh judgments. They fish for incidental details of someone’s personal or social life to prove their point; they raise their arms in exasperation (“I told you so! Him, too!”), as if to confirm the everlasting stereotypes of Russian spleen and ennui. I secretly wanted to do the same, so I decided to stop searching for Plushenko’s name on YouTube. I was trying to find a way to minimize this blurring of the professional and the social. As an Olympic champion, Plushenko can’t help but become a symbol of his country, but he was such an athlete: one of the few male skaters to perform a Biellmann spin (that is, spinning while holding a foot extended over the head), the first skater to perform a quadruple-toe-loop–triple-toe-loop–double-loop combination, he had a brilliant career, beautiful all the way, his unnaturally yellow mop-top hair shaking violently.
Right now Plushenko is recovering from back surgery. It wasn’t his first. A few days prior he had announced that the surgery was going to be broadcast live, so that everyone can see how doctors replace some of the 50,000 bolts already inserted into his spine, but this turned out to be a joke. There’s little doubt now that the Ice King has retired. In any case, I’m sure lots of Russian women wouldn’t mind seeing the Sexbomb opened up on an operating table.
I’ve watched curling religiously for several Olympics now, and I still don’t understand the rules, the scoring, or any of that. It doesn’t matter. It’s obviously about getting the stones to the center. I guess I’ve learned one term: stones. I also guess that curling refers to the twisting way they push the stones forward—so I’m at maybe two terms, max. I have no idea what they call the target. I’m sure it’s on Wikipedia.
I obviously don’t watch curling to gather information. I watch it to relax. The truth is, I don’t even know, or care to know, who wins. By the time somebody’s arms are raised in triumph, I am already transported. The aquiline concentration of the approach, the perfect Euclidean target, the overhead (indeed, heavenly) view provided by television, the smoothness and slowness of what transpires—these things somehow constitute a wondrous and dependable opiate.
I cannot hear the commentators. (I am sure they are experts; I cannot hear them.) I hear only the shouting of the players. They bark precise commands, but even when I know the language, I hear it like an opera: a dramatic voicing, rather disappointingly made of words. And as the humans are frantically scurrying and sweeping and yelling, the stones progress in a way that is marvelously smooth and slow. How heavy they must be! Even on television, they feel so heavy! They press on me like sleep. I enter a wintry dream, a precise and merciful dream.
I love how the players look like they work together. I don’t mean “co-operation.” I mean work together like at Staples, or in an office building somewhere. Besides the special shoes—they must have special shoes—curling uniforms are uniformly ordinary: pants plus shirt. (Or sometimes they have a zip-up fleece-type thingy.) They are not done up like the star-crossed disco-royalty over in figure skating, nor do they go baggy, like the care-free stoners who play all the newer winter sports. They do not look like fluorescent plastic super-bots; they do not look like steroidal patriots; they do not look like role models, or even underdogs. If they don’t resemble anyone else at the Olympics, that’s because they don’t resemble athletes. A heroic gesture, given the context.
But it’s not just the outfits. All the other winter sports, I’ve noticed, are about speed and judging. I say, fuck speed and judging. Especially in winter. When I watch curling, I don’t even care about winning. Which means the whole Olympic fucksicle starts to backslide terribly right there. I start to think, you know what, fuck nations. Fuck all this skin-tight bullshit. Fuck medal counts! Heartwarming montage? Oligarchs? Corporate sponsors? Fuck right off.
I suppose curling is as complicit as any sport in all of this, but it is also a way out. This is perhaps a heretical view, and maybe the rationalization of an addict, and probably offensive to anyone who actually plays the sport. I don’t know. I am just a humble viewer. But I have come to believe that curling, even when played at the Olympics, or especially when played at the Olympics, is about something different. And that different thing is all I can see when I watch.