Closer Readings Commentary

From Russia with Sport: 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi

"Most other competitions are individual achievements, but the Olympic games is something that belongs to everybody."—Scott Hamilton, American figure skater and Olympic Gold medalist

This February the world turns its eyes to Sochi, Russia, the site of the 2014 Wintertime Olympics, with some events located in the neighboring town of Krasnaya Polyana. For two weeks, from February 7 through February 23, the 2014 Winter Games will be played out on site, broadcast over the airwaves, and transmitted through the digital realm. Encompassing over 85 nations, spectators will witness more than 2500 athletes competing in 98 separate events in this international sporting exhibition unlike any other. Television viewership for this year’s Games is expected to exceed the 190 million who tuned in to watch the Winter Olympics of 2010. The size of this year’s audience will swell dramatically with those who will be following the action on the Internet and through social media networks such as Facebook and twitter.

How does Sochi, Russia, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, offer a special context for the Games?

Russia Plays Host

Two thousand fourteen marks the first time the Olympics have been held in Russia since the breakup of the USSR and the first time a Russian city has been the venue for the Winter Games.

Introduce students to this host country with the PBS documentary The Face of Russia. Have them consider the following questions: Who are the Russian people? How have they expressed their character and inner conflicts in their art and culture? And, as Russia’s democracy continues to develop, how have the Russian people redefined themselves culturally, spiritually, and politically? An interactive timeline tracks the chronology of Russian culture through ten centuries of art, architecture, music, dance, and cinema. A glossary provides definitions of Russian words, a bibliography and Web links list additional resources, and lesson plans offer activities about Russian culture for elementary through high school grades. Finally, for a bit of added interest, the site’s Cyrillic alphabet indicates the English transliteration of the alphabet.

Delve deeper into Russian history from 1453–1825 with the NEH-funded online exhibit Russia Engages the World, from the New York Public Library. Trace Russia’s movement from relative isolation to global empire through its contacts with Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Peer into a “window on Europe,” the city of St. Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great in 1703 as a symbol of Russia’s new direction, and explore the significant role this new cosmopolitan capital played in the country’s evolution.

Uncover the backstory on Russia’s 20th-century incarnation as the Soviet Union within EDSITEment-reviewed Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. This website offers texts, images, maps, and audio and video materials from the Soviet era (1917–1991): all translated into English. Find materials about Soviet propaganda, politics, economics, society, crime, literature, art, dissidents, and hundreds of other topics.

You can extend students’ cultural knowledge even further with EDSITEment’s The Magical World of Russian Fairy Tales for a close reading of several Russian stories, including The Story of Baba Yaga, the iconic witch of Slavic folklore. Then compare and contrast these Russian folktales with their western European counterparts. Additional background on the Russian people can be tapped in EDSITEment-reviewed Bucknell's Russian Studies Department’s multi-layered reference on the history, culture, and language of the country.


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Sochi: “Hot.Cool.Yours.”

(Russian: Жаркие. Зимние. Твои.) Sochi Olympic slogan

100 ruble banknote

Geographically Sochi is an interesting venue choice for the Winter Games. Located on the coast of the Black Sea near the border between Georgia/Abkhazia and Russia, its subtropical climate makes it one of the few places in the country that enjoys warm summers and mild winter temperatures. Because of this, Sochi has become Russia’s largest and most popular resort city. It was established as a fashionable vacation getaway in Stalin’s era and later emerged as the unofficial summer capital of the country. Eleanor Roosevelt made a stop in Sochi on her month long tour of Russia in 1957. Her Autobiography states, “My trip to the Soviet Union was one of the most important, most interesting, and most informative I have ever made.” Roosevelt writes of the 50 sanitariums sponsored by trade unions and the government-run industries she observed operating in the region of Sochi:

At Sochi there is a remarkable arrangement that permits either men or women workers going to the sanatoriums to take along their spouses, but at extra cost. I saw many husbands and workers enjoying the beautiful beaches at Sochi lying in the sun or swimming. The people spend much time and thought preparing for their holidays; in fact, I never realized how important vacations were until I heard them discussed so fervently in the Soviet Union. (“In the Land of the Soviets,” The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt)

This year Sochi is putting its own distinctive stamp on the Games with its unique design for the new Olympic medals coined for the event winners. The medals contain a patchwork quilt pattern arranged in the form of a mosaic that represent the various cultures and ethnicities of the Russian Federation. The surface of the medal is meant to convey the winter sun reflecting through the crystal snowy mountains overlooking the Black Sea resort beaches. The front features the Olympic rings; the reverse contains the name of the competition in English and the logo of the Sochi Games; and the rim is engraved with the official name of the Games in Russian, English, and French. Each medal weighs between 460 and 531 grams, depending on the metal used—gold, silver, or bronze—and are 10mm thick and 100mm in diameter. In total, about 1,300 medals have been manufactured for the Sochi 2014 Games.

There has been a great deal of buzz about Sochi’s Olympic Winter Games slogan: “Hot.Cool.Yours.” No spaces should be inserted between the words in this first Olympic emblem that also forms a web address. The motto is meant to actively encourage dialogue between Russians, nations, and winter sports fans—particularly young people—facilitated by Sochi 2014's online platforms. The succinct wording reflects current trends in texting and is meant to imply movement, evolution and progress forward. Each word carries special significance. “Hot” conveys the intensity of competitive sport and the passion of the spectators. “Cool” mirrors the winter context and alludes to stereotypical perceptions of Russia. “Yours” symbolizes personal involvement and is an invitation to the world to share in the achievements and the sense of pride created by the Games.


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Winter Games: Then and Now

Over the years the Winter Olympic Game venues have extended across the world to include host countries from Sweden to Canada. Understandably, the Winter Olympics have never been held in the Southern hemisphere. EDSITEment’s Thinkfinity-partner National Geographic Education takes students behind the scenes of the 2014 winter games and offers a reference guide to each of the events to help students better understand the skills and disciplines necessary to compete to this level. Divided into 14 sports (15 if skeleton is counted as a separate sport from bobsleigh), and as some sports have multiple disciplines, these events are further subdivided into men’s and women’s competitions, relay competitions, and races of different distances. The events in Sochi will take place in two main venues, nicknamed the “Mountain Complex” and the “Coastal Complex.”  

Women’s figure skating has traditionally been one of the most popular Winter Olympic events. Looking back at the history of the sport in the United States, students can observe how this event has evolved over the years. Figure skating was the first winter Olympic event to appear in the Summer Olympics in London in 1908. In those early Games, there were events for pairs and singles, just as there are today. NEH-funded 1968 Exhibit, reflects on the 1968 Winter Olympics held in Grenoble, France, where America’s sweetheart Peggy Fleming took home gold in the figure skating competition. Fleming's win became the first in an unbroken streak of medals for American women skaters that extended down to the Winter Games in 2006. Her performance is the stuff of legend, and is available on YouTube. Watching it today, one is struck by the marked difference between the style of figure skating then—classic, balletic, and graceful—and the 21st-century style of competition, when this event has come to be dominated by power, speed, and athletic jumping.

Ice hockey is another traditional favorite of the Winter Games with an interesting history. It has evolved considerably since the men’s tournament was first introduced at the 1920 Summer Olympic Games and became a permanent fixture at the Winter Games in 1924. In July 1992, the International Olympic Committee voted to approve women's hockey as an Olympic event; the women’s tournament was first included at the 1998 Winter Olympics. Olympic hockey competition was originally intended for amateur athletes and only after extensive controversy were National Hockey League players finally eligible to compete in 1998. From 1924 to 1988, the tournament started with a round-robin series of games and ended with the medal round. Medals were awarded based on points accumulated during that round. Since then, the Olympic competitions are overseen by the International Ice Hockey Federation, whose rules differ slightly from the NHL.


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With our partners in the Thinkfinity consortium, EDSITEment offers a variety of lessons on subjects relating to the Winter Olympics. Engage your student with these fascinating backstories to uncover the history, science and geography behind the Winter Olympic sporting competitions.


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