Say what you want about Communists, but they know how to throw an Olympic opening ceremony.
There are really two ways to watch the Olympic festivities: Laugh at them for the bloated exercises in propaganda that they are, or embrace the pageantry and the one-world ideal. Either way, there was a lot of cool stuff to see on Friday night, as well as much at which one could poke fun, from the glitch involving the Olympic rings (hey, four out of five isn’t bad) to NBC’s ponderous “All of Russian history in six minutes” introductory film package.
For NBC, of course, the Sochi Olympics — much like Beijing a few years ago — will inevitably be a delicate balancing act. Given the network’s enormous investment and time-shifted coverage that plays as much like a soap opera as sports, it has every incentive for the Games to go off without a hitch. The host country’s human-rights transgressions, however, threat of terrorism and early horror stories about logistics add an unwelcome element of news and real-world intrusion to the proceedings, opening the door for criticism and accusations of whitewashing such concerns.
NBC’s Bob Costas sought to address some of that in his initial comments and interview with President Obama, but he also acknowledged, rather honestly, that the hope was the Olympics would be remembered as much for the sports as for any of the controversies. Those sentiments were echoed by “Today’s” Matt Lauer, who said he had “fingers crossed” that the Olympics could maintain their focus on the athletes and competition — clearly a set of priorities shared by Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, who surely disappointed some by wearing a shirt throughout the evening.
Thirty years after the legendary producer David L. Wolper set the standard for Olympic showmanship in Los Angeles, the Russians continued that particular arms race, from the beautiful image of an extremely brave little girl being hoisted through the air to the glowing figures forming the Russian flag. (One seemed to step out of line briefly, and hey, it was nice almost knowing him.)
OK, feel free to chuckle at the ridiculous Vegas headdresses the women escorting the athletes into the stadium were forced to wear, or the musical tribute to the Soviet space program. The parade of nations is still kind of a kick — especially those warm-weather countries that only send a couple of beaming, absolutely-no-chance-of-winning participants — and it’s hard not to admire the majesty of all those objects floating across the stadium, or even the idea of feeding a global audience a healthy dose of ballet.
That interlude, incidentally, produced what might be the most pricelessly inane Olympic segue ever, with Lauer saying, “Imperialism in Russia is about to be swept away by two important events: The Russian Revolution, and this commercial break.”
Granted, Disney parks pull off a lesser version of this twice a day, but for whatever reason, a U.S. audience never seems to tire of revisiting this revue every couple of years.
As for those who will fret about the Games becoming a showcase for Putin’s Russia, as they did in Beijing, take solace in two things: All that will go out the window once the figure skating starts; and given how hard the Russians are marketing themselves — and how often this Russian revolution will be interrupted by commercial breaks — it sure looks like the capitalists have won.