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Navigating Kitsch and Controversy At The Opening Ceremonies

Dancers perform Dove of Peace during the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
Martin Rose
Getty Images
Dancers perform Dove of Peace during the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

One hopes, at an event of nebulous actual significance like the opening ceremonies of any Olympics, for a single moment that can tease out the specific weirdness of that event. You need something, some nut, some bit, that can demonstrate to people in a single flash what it was like for a bunch of people to pay attention to something even though arguably nothing happened.

At Friday's opening ceremonies in Sochi, that moment came when Matt Lauer announced that at a particular juncture in a lengthy Russian history pageant, imperialism in Russia would be interrupted "by two important events: the Russian Revolution and this commercial break.

It is ever thus with this ritual, the combination of the crass and gaudy with the historically significant and the nationally precious. On the one hand, Russia announced itself Friday with salutes to not only its history in industry and struggle, but also its great literature. On the other hand: there were twirling dancers who looked like jellyfish and a police choir singing "Get Lucky." (They didn't even show the police choir on TV, which is baffling, particularly given that there was plenty of time for the announcing crew to flap their gums for long minutes at the end of the four-hour broadcast.) You can get more of a blow-by-blow account elsewhere. You know, from ages ago, when it was live.

As if this weren't enough layers of discomfort, the United States TV audience gets a cut-down, tape-delayed version overlayed with announcers like Lauer and Meredith Vieira, who at one point told people that if they were curious about the Cyrillic alphabet, they could Google it. So we wait hours and hours so that the network can add all this context that we supposedly need, and it consists of an on-site expert telling us to ... use Google if we want to know stuff.

What the American announcers do, however, specialize in is assuring the audience that all of this is perfectly familiar to Russians. Every Russian, they assure us, knows exactly what the buildings that form themselves into the shape of a whale are all about. Every Russian knows this book. Russians get this. Russians think this, Russians think that. In their effort to create a kind of flavorless open-mindedness, they wind up making it seem like nobody in all of Russia might think light-up costumes were corny. Surely, someone would.

And as hard as the commentators are straining to be respectful of what they keep insisting is tradition, the mismatch between the purpose of the event and its content is still there. Why, it is easy to wonder, is this athletic event being introduced alongside a ballet interpretation of War And Peace? Is it simply a Great Big Show Of Russian Stuff, and if it is, are we obligated to take it more seriously than we would a similarly structured Great Big Show Of American Stuff? Because I'm betting American Twitter could find just as much comedy in giant inflatable Uncle Sams, dancing Vegas casinos and a tap dance version of The Great Gatsby as it did in anything that came from Sochi. It's not the country that's making people giggle, it's the kitsch.

There are parts of the ceremony that are always good fun: the brightest colored team uniforms in the Parade of Nations, the bits of trivia about the only competitor from this or that very hot nation, or the random dancers who have to keep it up while 80 teams stroll past them.

But especially with the 2014 Games so tense over a variety of social justice issues and NBC already in hot water for apparently snipping out a tolerance-themed part of the IOC president's speech, it's hard to reconcile the goofy entertainment value of a high-tech animated floor with the messages about history and culture that the pageant section was designed to send.

Ultimately, people watch the ceremonies waiting for the unexpected. They don't come, particularly as TV viewers, to admire the spectacle or learn history. They come for things like the fifth Olympic ring that did not light up as it was supposed to. (Reminiscent of the mechanical arm that didn't go up in Vancouver.) In a sense, this is the Oscars red carpet, full of chatter about what everybody is wearing and why there's a horse on the stage, only instead of the Oscars, it's designed around a historical story that's terribly complex and really ill-suited to dancing.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.