July 25, 2014

Letter from Paris: There’s Something About Sochi

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

xxii-winter-olympics-logoAfter a few weeks of a media coverage of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games saturated with predictions of terrorist attacks, confrontations and unpreparedness, it felt a relief to watch the opening ceremony on Feb. 6 proceed without any significant hitch.  The smiling and happy faces of the athletes parading inside the stadium before the beginning of the show were the promise of two great weeks on TV. (Close to four billion viewers watched the last winter games of Vancouver).

The sheer number and size of the national teams are astounding. Compared to the 250 sportsmen from 16 countries who participated in the first Winter Olympics in 1924 in Chamonix, today more than 3,000 people make up the delegations from 87 countries. Women have come a long way since the 1900 games when their appearances were limited to tennis and golf.

The German president of International Olympic Committee(IOC), Thomas Bach, defused the feared boycott caused by the Russian government’s homophobic position.  He declared that no discrimination would be tolerated toward any group of people.  President Putin of Russia made the shortest -10 second – speech of his career when he declared open the XXII Winter Olympic Games.

The opening ceremony was a grand scale production – Russians have always been good at those – that evoked the nation’s history.  It started with a short film showing Slavic tribesmen in a small vessel.  Actually the scene looked rather like ancient Greeks on their mythical quest to find the Golden Fleece on the distant shores of the Caucasus.

After a romantic 19th century program exalting Russian literature, music and ballet , the post-1917 era was introduced by dozens of young dancers wearing costumes straight out of a Malevich painting. The message was clear: the Russian establishment had reconciled itself with abstract art which had been vilipended for so long.

The host country of the 2014 games had to show its pride in the most glorious event of its history: the orbiting around the earth of the adulated “cosmonaut” Yuri Gagarin.  The patriotism toward the country’s achievement intensified when five heroes of the past walked in, bearing the Olympic flag.

Among them was Valentina Tereshkova , the first woman in space in 1963 (she was a beautiful young woman when I met her at a reception given at the French embassy in Moscow in 1965).  The youthful appearance of tennis champion Maria Sharapova, who trained at the Sochi sport center until the age of seven, was obviously directed at the modern audience.

The Sochi games have been organized at a high human, financial and environmental cost: corruption, expropriation of local population, damage caused to the “Sochi National Park” and to the “Caucasian Biosphere Preserve”- a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Nordmen Firs, which are the tallest trees of Europe (close to 300 feet high) grow in those areas .

Some of the blogs against the Sochi project have been so vitriolic as to be uninformative.  It is better to read well-researched pieces like the one published by David Remnick. Remnick was the Washington Post correspondent in Moscow in the 1980s and now is the editor of the New Yorker.

Soviet and Russian leaders have cherished the sub-tropical coast of the Black Sea. Stalin, Brezhnev, Andropov and Yeltsin all had their summer residences in Sochi prior to Putin.  It was on his return from his dacha in Pitsunda, in what is today Abkhazia, that Nikita Khrushchev was overthrown by Brezhnev on Oct. 15, 1965. Gorbachev’s dacha was located west of Yalta in the Crimea (we were boarded by an armed patrol craft for allegedly sailing too close) .

We circumnavigated the Black Sea on our 44-foot ketch in the summer of 1991. We had obtained visas for Sochi.  In retrospect, our visit to Sochi was a preview to the 2014 games.  In an outdoor theater, we happened to watch the production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” by the Rock Opera St Petersburg Theater.  It was the first Russian-staged production of that musical.  There will be a repeat performance during the games.

We stayed at the very busy new marina called coincidentally the Center of Sailing Sports or “Olympic Centre.”  Or was it a premonition on the part of the Russians that there would be Olympic games one day in their town?

HeadshotAbout the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.