Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sochi Winter Games: From Russia with Love

Sochi 2014 / The whole world's watching.

The 2014 Sochi Winter Games are less than a week old. Already, these Olympic Games taking place in this Russian resort town on the Black Sea coast have been all about the host nation, Russia, being buoyantly confident while projecting a sense of pride for the rest of the world to see.

Colorful fireworks light up the
Sochi sky at night.
Sure, during last Friday's elaborate but colorful Opening Ceremonies there was plenty of selective and revisionist 20th century history -- glossing over the bad parts -- going on. One didn't need to be an expert in Russian or Soviet history to realize there was no mention of gulags or, for that matter, Joseph Stalin, either. You know, that big fat chapter of Russia's evil history. I think if I were narrating the Opening Ceremonies, I might have looked the other way during the Stalinist Years, too, and fast-forwarded from the 1917 Revolution straight through to the Communist Cold War Years, filled with cosmonauts and the space race. But, then, that still leaves perestroika, the dissolving of the Soviet Union, which is so 20th century, and its growing pains with democracy in the current 21st century, which sadly has included gay repression.

However, leave it to Russia to always put on a good show when it comes to ballet and music. For me, the Alice in Wonderland-inspired lesson in learning the Cyrillic alphabet and seeing the multicolored onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral bobbing in the air were nice touches. So, were the tributes to Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." 

For Russia, the show is especially enjoyable when it's ballet and music set on ice.

After all, a dominant nation that's given us so many figure skating champions, especially pairs champions -- the Protopopovs, Rodnina and Zaitsev, Gordeeva and Grinkov, and now Volosozhar and Trankov -- not to mention ballet artists like Pavlova and Baryshnikov, and classical composers such as Prokofiev and Stravinsky, is definitely a nation secure in its own cultural identity. Forget the politics, if you will. Because when you combine the art of ballet and music with the athleticism of figure skating, you stop for a moment, soak it all in, and smile in appreciation.

The soul of Russia is found on ice and it's their vital tradition.

"Figure skating is our tradition," Tamara Moskvina, the longtime figure skating coach who has coached Russian pairs skaters to four Olympic gold medals, said in a New York Times interview this week. "It combines technique and art, and Russia has a great tradition in those fields." 

On Sunday night in Sochi's Iceberg Skating Palace, the inaugural Olympic team ice skating competition reached its crescendo. On the strength of Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who won the short and long programs in ice dancing, the United States won the bronze medal and Canada won the team silver medal. Both countries will be competitive during individual the competitions, which began today.

However, when it was all said and done Sunday night, there were lots of bouquets tossed onto the ice and plenty of applause in appreciation of the "home team." Team Russia had won its first gold medal of these Winter Games, and I'm sure they will win more during the ice skating competition.

It's all about the tradition of artistry meeting athleticism.

While Russia and, before that, the Soviet Union have dominated pairs and ice dancing events, there have been moments of individual brilliance, too.

For instance, Evgeni Plushenko, 31, who is competing in his fourth Games, won the men's long program during the team event in what could be seen as a valedictory performance that was full of perseverance in overcoming numerous injuries. What he may have lacked in technical skill -- he attempted just one quadruple jump -- he made up for by dazzling the crowd, and a world-wide audience, with his enthusiasm and showmanship.

Plushenko now has four career Olympic medals, most in the modern era. He won the men's singles in 2006, and silver medals in 2002 and 2010. Arguably, he may be more popular among Russians than President Vladimir V. Putin, who attended the team figure skating event and, later, congratulated each Russian team skater individually.

Yulia Lipnitskaya / The little girl in the bright red dress. She's
brought joy on ice to an entire country, and she's winning gold, too.

Meanwhile, the ladies free skate portion of the competition turned into a coming-of-age gala for 15-year-old Russian figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya. She brought joy to an entire country, skating poised beyond her years -- and flawlessly, too -- to music from from the Academy Award-winning "Schindler's List." She was the little girl with the ponytail skating beautifully and brilliantly in the bright red dress. And, Lipnitskaya was the same little girl who scooped up a preppy, Russia baseball cap as she skated off the ice. She put it on without hesitating -- it was an age-appropriate thing to do -- and she kept it on her head through the rest of the competition, including the flower ceremony for the medal-winning teams afterwards.

By winning the short and long programs in the women's portion of the team event, Lipnitskaya became the youngest gold medalist since Tara Lipinski of the United States won the women's individual competition at age 15 during the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. (Incidentally, Lipinski was in the arena working as a figure skating analyst for NBCSN during Lipnitskaya's short and long programs.)

When you see Lipkitskaya's flexibility and fearlessness on the ice, not to mention her gravity and emotional resonance in interpreting a serious music score, you realize that you are witnessing something very special. Now, I can't wait to see her perform in the ladies individual competition against the reigning Olympic champion Kim Yu-na of South Korea during the final week of the Games.

Gold, silver, bronze /
It's all about winning medals.
Undoubtedly, the Sochi Winter Games, believed to be the most expensive Olympic Games in history, have brought bright lights and color to an area of the world that's not far removed from war. The Caucasus Mountains look beautiful and inviting. There's been lots of patriotic flag waving in the arenas, on the slopes, and in the plaza of Olympic Park, too. They have made for good TV visuals back here in the United States (thanks to NBC and the Today show, which desperately wants to see the Americans do well -- and win often). Thank goodness, I've found a reliable Internet link to watch the BBC2's refreshingly enjoyable, commercial-free coverage that is far less pretentious and glitzy than NBC's boosterish -- and, sometimes, boorish -- 24/7 coverage that's full of commercial interruptions every few minutes here in the United States. 

What's important is this: During its first week, the Sochi Winter Games have been about breaking down barriers of age, for which we can thank Plushenko and Lipnitskaya, an old wisehead and a young upstart, among many competing at these Games -- and, for Russia, it's been about restoring a little bit of tradition, too. For better or worse, it's also brought the whole world just a little bit closer together.

Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov /
Continuing a tradition of excellence in pairs figure skating.

A postscript: On Wednesday evening, Tatiana Volosozhar, 27, and Maxim Trankov, 30, won the gold medal in pairs figure skating, beating fellow Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov by 18 points.  It continued a tradition of excellence and their country's dominance in this Olympic sport.  Skating to music from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar," Volosozhar and Trankov presented a challenging free skate program that was steeped in difficulty, and they finished it without any big mistakes. At its conclusion, Trankov triumphantly slid across the ice like an international football player celebrating a goal. Meanwhile, Volosozhar, tearful and standing with her knees bent slightly, buried her face in her hands. It was a celebration in joy. Although there were two more pairs to skate, they knew the gold medal was a possibility.

Photo of Yulia Lipnikskaya courtesy of Reuters/Google images. 
Photo of Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov via BBC Sport/internet image.
Other photos courtesy of Google images.

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