A pseudo-lesbian pop duo, a famed opera singer and a romp through Russian history await viewers as the Sochi Winter Olympics launch Friday with an opening ceremony meant to showcase to the world the ultimate achievement of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
In a provocative choice, Russian singers Tatu will perform before the 3,000 athletes march through a stadium on the shores of the Black Sea, one of the many newly built facilities in the most expensive Olympics in history.
The women in Tatu put on a lesbian act that is largely seen as an attention-getting gimmick. It contrasts with the very real anger over a Russian law banning gay “propaganda” aimed at minors that is being used to discriminate against gays. Some world leaders and activists have protested the law, and President Barack Obama is skipping the opening ceremony and sending a delegation that includes prominent gay athletes instead.
The opening ceremony is Russia’s chance to show itself and its post-Soviet identity to the world. It is likely to lean on Putin’s version: a country with a rich and complex history emerging confidently from a rocky two decades and now capable of putting on a major international sports event.
The ceremony will focus on Russia and Olympic ideals of sportsmanship and achievement — not on repression of dissent, fears of terrorism or international political tensions over neighboring Ukraine.
For people who don’t know much about Russia, the ceremony’s director, Konstantin Ernst, promised “relatively simple metaphors” — and no obscure references, like the nurses in the London Games’ opening ceremony representing the National Health Service, which he called one of the most “incomprehensible” moments in Olympic history.
Ernst said Tatu’s “Not Gonna Get Us” was chosen because it’s one of the only Russian pop songs that international viewers might recognize.
Most of Friday’s performance will instead lean on Russia’s rich classical music traditions, with piano virtuoso Denis Matsuev performing and opera soprano Anna Netrebko singing the Olympic anthem.
Ernst also argued that the choice of Tatu’s song was about motivating athletes with an upbeat dance song that challenges competitors by saying, “You’re not going to get us.”
Putin referred to none of that when speaking to IOC members and nearly 20 world leaders at a dinner late Thursday, instead stressing the importance of “mutual understanding, justice, pacifism.”
“I’m feeling especially positive energy,” he said. Despite hang-ups with some hotel rooms and last-minute construction problems, he said he hopes these games “allow people to appreciate our organizational capabilities and our traditional Russian hospitality.”
Ernst said the opening and closing ceremonies will make reference to the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, which some view as the first time the opening ceremony became such a big deal.
The show will be focused on TV audiences, with projections onto the stadium floor, so fans in the stands won’t enjoy the full effect.
Asked whether Putin might arrive at the ceremony from the air, like stunt actors playing James Bond and Queen Elizabeth II did at in London, Ernst said, “it’s hardly worth hoping for that.”
The Winter Games ceremony is generally a more low-key event than the summer opener. Ernst said organizers tried to keep it from dragging out too long, since most viewers only care to watch their own team and its key rivals.
But who will carry the Olympic torch to light the cauldron for the games, after the flame’s unprecedented journey to the North Pole, the cosmos, Europe’s highest mountain peak and beyond?
“It’s the biggest secret ever,” Ernst said, with a smile.