The Other Way America Won at the Olympics



The branding of Russia at the Olympics Games

Sochi Olympics (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Sochi Olympics (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

A friend of mine spent the fall in Siberia improving his Russian. His bags didn’t include a
winter coat when he left in late August. He reasoned that nobody in the world would make
warmer winter coats than the Russians in Siberia, so he might as well just buy the best one he’ll
ever own while over there. He claimed he did. But when he got back and I saw that his coat —
complete with fur hood — was clearly branded in English, I called him out on it. In response, he
showed me some of the inside tags and they were all in Russian. Apparently brands are all in
English, no matter how authentically Russian.

Like my friend’s coat, the Sochi opening ceremonies were big with lots of frills around
the edge. It was Russia’s opportunity to redeem itself from the catastrophe that was press
coverage of the preceding few days, but it was a lot more than just a tremendous show of
fireworks and a flying little girl. Politics abounded in the ceremony itself, but also in the
surprising team uniforms of several countries. The main message of all of this is that if there was
any question left about it, capitalism seems to have won the Cold War pretty handily.
There was an appropriate amount of respect and reference to the communist period in the
ceremony, the flying hammer and sickle alongside Lenin’s train most notable, but then the
organizers decided that Bye Bye Birdie needed a Russian revival. Classic ’50s cars drove by girls
wearing what looked like poodle skirts. This is a shocking recast and Americanization of the
actual events of shortage, repression, and censorship that took place in the Soviet Union even
after de-Stalinization began 1953. It seems that in post-communist Russia, money can buy happy
pictures, if not happy memories. The desire to celebrate history is admirable, but the desire to
re-write it much less so. The organizers ought to have stuck with displays of Sputnik and
Gagarin, past Olympic victory, and other triumphs of culture; they just don’t have the talent for
pop culture that was on display in London two years ago.

Beside Russian triumphs of new money marched the American athletes. Star-spangled,
but apparently also from the Republic of Polo. Whatever it was, camera angles or just unlucky
fortune, it seemed much easier to read the ‘Polo’ branding than the ‘USA’ on their sweaters. Of
course a designer has the right to be proud of their work, but it seemed inappropriate in the
circumstances. The Olympic Games should be a celebration of the nation, not a corporate brand.
We celebrate the athletes in the games, not their equipment. The skiers, not the skis. In the
uniforms we should be celebrating the national symbols such as the flag, unless we count
corporatism as a national pastime too.

It’s really an unfair characterization to pick on the Americans; US media just gave them a
closer shot than anybody else. Further examination of other national outfits reveals that
prominent branding is a common thing, sort of. The two camps appear to be function and
national fashion. Large winter coats were commonly marked, such as Ireland and Jamaica, but
branding was absent in anything that didn’t look like it came off the City Sports rack. Sweden’s
streamlined and angular coats, Spain and Bermuda’s blazers, and Russia’s fur greatcoats. It seems
the sweater isn’t special enough.

But while Russia’s coats for the opening ceremony don’t have a brand name, the athlete
warm-ups at the events have a far more interesting brand name. It took me a few events, but I
realized I could clearly read the name. It said ‘RUSSIA’, plain and clear in the Latin script with
the English spelling. Even the national brand sells itself in English. There may be something in the rules mandating that the Olympic languages of French and English be used for competitive
purposes, but that doesn’t seem like it should stop the uniforms from having a single Cyrillic
character anywhere. It didn’t stop the countries from entering in Cyrillic alphabetical order or
announcements being in English, French, and Russian.

It’s absurd to declare that America has already won the Olympics outright because of this.
As of right now, the nation still has to compete with Norway, Canada, and the Netherlands for
medal count, and, really, nobody actually wins the Olympics. Athletes win their events, but no
single nation is crowned with a medal at the end of the day, no matter what color or how much
they’ve managed to stack up. But America has won in some ways. Countries seem to want to
look like us, even if they don’t necessarily want to be us. From big to small, from the massive
patriot gala of the opening ceremony to coat brand names, Russia is presenting itself as a normal,
global, western nation.

Will Harrington ’16 (harrington@college) really wants one of Tonga’s baller coats. That? To the
winter games? Yes.