Hamster Balls to Inflatable Beavers: Experiments in Tackiness at the Closing Ceremonies

The games are over, the torch is extinguished, and televisions -- at least for graduate students who have substituted nightly Olympic coverage for reading, research and thesis writing -- again become nothing but decoration. But the experience wouldn't be complete without a slightly off-color conclusion: the Closing Ceremonies.

Aside from the bizarre selection of k.d. lang's "Hallelujah" as a "song of peace" (did no one listen to the lyrics before approving that choice?!), and its debatably theatrical treatment of Canada's First Nations, the Opening Ceremonies were a dazzling success. CGI brilliantly -- and tastefully -- brought majestic whales, soaring geese and other elegant Canadian symbols to center stage. The Closing Ceremonies, conversely, brought its tackiest.

Clunky Canadian stereotypes aside, the festivities shifted the Olympic spotlight to Sochi, Russia, where the 22nd Games will begin in 1439 days (visit Sochi2014.com for the official countdown and other fun facts). As a transition, NBC commentators gleefully quoted Prime Minister Putin's icy dismay over Russia's poor showing in Vancouver: "Of course we expected more from our team, but that's not cause to throw up our hands, wear a sackcloth and ashes or beat ourselves with chains." Although not as overtly threatening as Russian hockey coach Vyacheslav Bykov's suggestion to just "put up guillotines and scaffolds up on Red Square. We have 35 people in the squad -- let's finish them all off," both men's remarks must leave Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko a bit chilled as he awaits his Kremlin summons.

Commentators were sure to emphasize that the last Olympics held in Russia -- the 1980 Moscow Games -- were met with a U.S. boycott. They failed to acknowledge that 64 other countries boycotted the games as well, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. "See you in Sochi," the Russians' somewhat affectedly chummy slogan for the 2014 Games, seems to emblematize their collective desire for a very different outcome this time.

But Russia's presentation of its new face, 34 years later and under a new name, echoes its Soviet past more than its leaders may realize or admit. From its forceful incantation of the Russian national anthem (a modification of the Soviet anthem that Putin proudly restored in 2000) to somewhat eerily panning shots of Red Square, to an image of black-clad people seemingly "trapped" in white Olympic rings, it seems that Russia is in no hurry to revamp its image.

The subsequent production ranged from ballet to an oddly surreal skating scene seemingly intended to mimic Sochi's coastal setting. These classical arts were punctuated by a healthy dose of tackiness, ironically introduced by commentators as exemplifying Russia's "cultural sophistication." Giant hamster balls ("Zorbs," apparently) rolled glowing humans across the stage while dated laser horses powered an opera singer's chalet. This would have been incredible technology thirty years ago, but today threatens to solidify the sense that Russia is living in the past.

Canada's inflatable beavers, game piece hockey players and fluttering, maple leaf-clad women were odd -- and stereotypical -- but jovially so. With its own display of tired symbols and fanfare, which fell far from humorous and often closer to baffling, one has to wonder if Russia got the joke.