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The curtain drops on Sochi – and Fisht stadium is protest-free

Sochi’s bear mascot sheds a tear as the most expensive Winter Olympic Games come to a close. marcus_and_sue/Flickr (cropped), CC BY-NC-SA

The Closing Ceremony for the 2014 Sochi Olympics went off without a hitch last night. Again the theatrical extravaganza was mesmerising and some of the dazzle matched the earlier ceremony, but the finale is always a bit different to the Opening moment.

After a fortnight of watching winter sports that many of us will not see again until we tune in for the 2018 Games in South Korea (well, apart from the Winter Paralympics), there is a new intimacy and comfort attached to viewing the closing ceremony that perhaps did not exist with the Opening Ceremony.

… and a pretty decent fireworks display.

When the Games opened, die-hard national sports fans may have known the names of a good number of the competitors from their own country and a few from other nations, but I imagine that for the majority of television viewers the names of the British curling teams and the top Japanese skiers and skaters were not familiar before we started our viewing fest.

But by day 15, after long nights of watching the screen or greedily scanning summaries of a previous day’s highlights every morning, we know the ins and outs of the sports and the athletes who took part. More than this in the media coverage of the games viewers are encouraged to “feel” with and for the athletes. Performances are presented in terms of four years of hard work and hope, and then either triumph or tears.

So, as Australians we get the back story on Lydia Lassila as a person and are with her every step of the way as she attempts to win gold with a quadruple–twisting triple somersault.

Here she is nailing a triple-twisting triple somersault.

So when the athletes flood into the stadium en masse for the Closing Ceremony following the national flag bearers, who no longer lead neatly divided national groups, it fits with the Olympic narrative of one big happy “family”.

Skating around politics

Of course there are political moments throughout the Games, but these tend to be staged as athletic battles between national competitors.

Sports are combat without weapons. This is the type of politics the Olympics encourages. Inside the ring, the half-pipe, or on the slopes “wars” for national supremacy take place.

The hockey matches between the United States and Russia play out long standing Cold War antagonisms. Other rivalries based more on proximity (such as the US versus Canada) also take place.

However, this is all contained politics and once the event is over the battle is seen as done. More importantly these condoned political moments are not about individuals or teams challenging the host nation. This is the type of politics the Olympic family does not condone.

In this environment it makes it hard to sustain or think about activist politics – the gay rights issues that dominated pre-games media, drifted away.

The small, though important, moments of resistance or protest that took place around the different venues are swamped by the millions of dollars spent on producing these closing scenes of beauty – circuses, ballets, pianos. In this environment the political is reduced to a short phrase from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach about “peace, tolerance and respect”.

A slideshow of moments from the Closing Ceremony.

A happy ending

As with most Olympics the power of the story of the propensity of sport to overcome differences, the narrative about the indomitable spirit of the individual, or sentimental pieces about comebacks come to be what we see and hear.

The Closing Ceremony is the distillation of this approach. It would be hard to be an individual athlete who chose to make a stand. The surveillance of athletes by chaperones, and the rhetoric of good behaviour and making your country proud would be overwhelming.

And for most people the experience they have had at Sochi is one of camaraderie, of helpful volunteers, and friendly locals. As the local dogs were swept off the streets, so were the protests and messy moments. This was best demonstrated by the members of Pussy Riot whose whipping by local guards was quickly replaced with news about gold medals.

The same thing happened in Sydney in 2000 when the turbulent weeks leading up to the Games and “fears” of Indigenous protests were replaced with delirious crowds and protest spaces well away from the action.

I imagine it will be the same for South Korea in 2018. Many locals will use the time leading up to the Games, when the “eyes of the world” are upon them, to get leverage around issues of contention.

Other nations can use boycott or more subtle means to send messages to other nations. But the power of the IOC in combination with the local/national government means that unsettling the 15 days will again be hard work.

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