Historical fantasyland: what archaeologists and historians need to know about Sochi 2014

The Olympics are here again and if you are anything like me, you’ll be tuning in on Friday February the 7th to watch the Opening Ceremonies. 

Since watching the Opening Ceremonies for the Athens Games in 2004, I’ve been particularly aware of how archaeology, history and a little bit of wish fulfillment go into the Games.

Alexander the Great Celebrated at Athens 20014: Sorry Alex, Hephaesteion isn't welcome at Sochi  Source: Reuters

Sorry Alex, Hephaesteion isn’t welcome at Sochi (Source: Reuters)

It would be all too easy to dismiss the Opening Ceremonies as propaganda or political fantasy-  but that would be dangerous, and here’s why.

Olympic Controversy

With Sochi’s 2014 Winter Games nearly upon us, we are probably hyperaware of the controversy this particular game’s has to contend with.

The oppression of LGBT people in Russia seems out of line with the values of the International Olympic Committee.

The new chair of the IOC was quick to point out that Russia instituted this law after it became a host nation.

This should not silence those who question the IOC’s decision to allow Russia to host the games; because even without Russia’s anti-gay legislation, these Olympics would still be controversial.

(Source: The Guardian)

(Source: The Guardian)

Why Russia?  Why Now? 

The Olympics require money, not just for the games, but also for security, which takes an ever increasing chunk of change.

Some might say this increasingly predisposes the IOC too choose host cities within militarized nations.  If so, then the 2012 Winter Games in Vancouver certainly fit Harper’s view of Canada.

The thing is, the choice to hold the Games in Russia was not all that unusual for the IOC where oppression, uninclusiveness and military triumphalism seem to represent business as usual.

You only have to watch the Olympic Opening Ceremonies to see just how out of touch the IOC has become from Pierre de Coubertin’s core values of excellence, friendship and respect.

Excellence, Friendship, Respect...and Moustaches!

The IOC: Excellence, Friendship, Respect…and Moustaches!

The Olympic Opening Ceremonies

Since the modern Olympics began in 1896, there have been 28 Summer Olympics and 21 Winter Olympics, with four games cancelled because of World War Two.

Traditionally the games are opened by an artistic display, for example a poetry reading, followed by a parade of nations, and a speech by the IOC’s president, who then opens the games.

Great Huzzah at the Olympic Games, 1896 (Source: IOC Collection)

Great Huzzah at the Olympic Games, 1896 (Source: IOC Collection)

The games have also been opened, on occasion, by heads of state: He Who Must Not Be Named in 1936, Queen Elizabeth II in 1976 and 2012, President Regan in 1984 and President George W. Bush in 2002.  Make of that what you will.

The Olympic Opening Ceremonies have blossomed since the days of understated poetry reading.  They have become showcases for a nation’s historical narrative.

And host nation seems more than glad to spend exponentially increasing amounts of money on lavish ceremonies.

Watching the ceremonies on TV we are regaled in dance and song, fireworks and flashing lights.

Hypnotized by this cavalcade of history, we see a nation as it wants to see itself: A sanitized version of history without pain, victory without oppression, valor without doubt.

London 2012: You Could Have Seen it From Space (Source: The Daily Mail)

London 2012: You Could Have Seen it From Space (Source: The Daily Mail)

Seen through the lenses of spectacle, the Olympics have never been, and never will be, inclusive.

The Olympics showcase a fantasy world, an ideal world for some, in which their nation’s destiny has been fulfilled.

More and more Olympic ceremonies have taken on narrative form, taking a chronological view of history that skips over the uncomfortable bits: invasions, sickness, oppression and failure.

Well the Olympics are supposed to be celebrations aren’t they- you don’t want to be burdened with scenes that might spoil the party?

So it seems reasonable that London 2012 didn’t want to showcase a bunch of dancing plague victims, right?

If you can think it, history's already done it (Source: Past Horizons)

If you can think it, history’s already done it (Source: Past Horizons)

Why Watch?

The Olympic Opening Ceremonies offer a triumphal view of the past; a vision in step with the goals of the International Committee, and out of step with reality. Fait Accompli!

But still there are lots of stories that remain untold, people unrepresented.

Seeing the Olympic Opening Games as mere propaganda would be dangerously dismissive, and make it all too easy for those in power to dismiss those with dissenting viewpoints.

We must watch Sochi’s Opening Ceremonies, not just to see what’s there- but to take note of what, or who, is absent.

We need to see, to bear witness to the scars that mar the heart of a nation.

Look at It! Just Look at It! (Source: DeviantART)

Look at It! Just Look at It! (Source: DeviantART)

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