TIME olympics

Olympic Critics Turn Sochi’s Opening Gala Into a Pity Party

The VIP bash for Russia's elite was meant to be fabulous but the mood was sour

On Thursday night, the eve of the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, a selection of Russia’s rich and famous got together for the Games’ unofficial opening – a gala in the city’s renovated sea port, which overlooks a harbor full of yachts and, a little further out to sea, navy patrol boats. It was, in many ways, a distinctly Russian party. Foreigners were conspicuously few in number. The tables creaked with mayonnaise-laden salads, herring, vodka and the dish most typical of New Russian cuisine – the sushi roll. But the usual frivolity of the Moscow beau monde had clearly been soured by all the bad press the Sochi Olympics have already been garnering. As the night wore on, it gave the chatter near the bar a tone of mutual commiseration, making it feel less like a ball than an extravagant pity party.

“Listen, we tried,” pouted Iosif Kobzon, the Russian crooner-turned-politician who often gets compared to Frank Sinatra. “We never promised to be the best at everything. We only promised to pour our hearts into these Games. And we have!”

But from all the flak these Olympics are taking from the Western press and Russian dissidents, you might not get that impression. Reports of unfinished hotels, detachable door handles, banned yogurt, unusual toilet arrangements, missing floors and other glaring Olympic oversights have dominated global coverage in the lead-up to the Games, and for the Russians who have spent the last few years touting their awesomeness, that seemed to hurt.

“Of course it hurts,” says Andrei Malakhov, the effervescent host of Russia’s most popular talk show, who came to the party in a bright red Olympic jumpsuit. “What do the Americans have to complain about? I saw their hotels. Every masseuse is fluttering around them, not even making time for me! And still all they see is the horrible stuff. Yes, it exists. But this is supposed to be a party.”

And even copious amounts of alcohol couldn’t get this one going. Pouring it up at last night’s gala was the vodka-and-banking billionaire Roustam Tariko, who tried to keep an uncharacteristically low profile. “Vodka and sport don’t make such a good pair,” he told me by the bar. “So we try to stay behind the scenes.”

To wit, his VIP lounge was kept hidden from a lot of the guests at Thursday’s party, tucked behind two layers of security guards in a far wing of the sea port. On the red velvet couches inside, Russian movie stars and TV personalities sipped brandy beside their waifish model wives, glancing now and then at the walls full of socialist realist paintings of Russia’s last Olympics, the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. Yet even when the band started playing La Bamba, none of them got up to dance. “Maybe by midnight someone’ll get drunk,” remarked a bored photographer. It never happened.

The party was reserved, certainly by Russian standards. Toward midnight, the Kremlin officials and lawmakers poured out of the small dining room to which they had secluded themselves for most of the night, helped their wives into their mink coats and made their way to the exit. Near the door, Kobzon, the crooner, stopped to reminisce with a few of the older statesmen about the Games of 1980, which was a low-point for the Olympic spirit.

The Winter Games were held that February in Lake Placid, New York, and overall, the Soviet Union handed the U.S. a beating, taking home 10 gold medals and topping the winners’ table. But that was also the year of the so-called Miracle on Ice, when the American hockey team beat out the Soviets by one goal in the final period. “Oh, how we wept after that game,” recalls Kobzon, who was part of the Soviet delegation to Lake Placid. A few months later, the weeping turned to anger when the U.S. led an international boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow. Though it was meant as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that year, the snub also tarnished the Olympic tradition of letting sport rise above the bad blood of the Cold War.

It was an experience no one at the Sochi opening party wanted to repeat, not even the few icons of the Russian opposition who were invited. Andrey Makarevich, Russia’s most famous rock musician, wrote many of the anthems of the Soviet dissident movement, and he still likes to lampoon the Kremlin in some of his lyrics today. But on Thursday, he also put on the garish Olympic uniform of Team Russia and mingled with the politicians. “For these two weeks, you have to call a truce,” he told me in the vodka room. “We have to pause all the politics and let the Games be a celebration. When it’s over, we can go back to criticizing each other.” Maybe after Friday night, when the official opening ceremony will try to win over the world, some of Sochi’s critics will start to agree.

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