On the way into Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium during this year’s World Cup, spectators found FIFA’s flagship Fan Shop in an unlikely spot: at the feet of a monumental statue to Lenin. The irony was unmistakable, but the effect was strangely appropriate. Here, embodied, was the paradox of Russia in the eyes of its foreign visitors: a nation that seems at once a globalist, cosmopolitan neighbor that has left its Soviet past behind and a contrarian, nationalist stronghold where a personality cult still reigns. Together, the statue and the shop put a particular Russian stamp on the more familiar contradiction that always comes with sporting events of this kind. Each new World Cup or Olympic Games strikes its own balance between international goodwill and national pride, starting the moment a local host begins to plan its global village. It’s up to the organizers, directors, architects, and artists, as the designers of international games, whether to stage the “inter” or the “national.”
Luzhniki has always been a site of such contradictions, representing both an open and a closed USSR in its early years: it has been the home of Olympic Games and of anti-Olympic Games. From 1956 to 1979, the Spartakiads (named after the rebel slave Spartacus) mounted mass workers’ ceremonies at Luzhniki as an answer to “bourgeois” Olympic amateurism, with gymnasts posing in coordinated formations to rally the united Soviet republics. Then, in 1980, those gymnasts made human towers in the shape of the five Olympic rings, welcoming the world. Stadiums, designed to house competing athletes, can also be venues for staging competing ideas. Luzhniki’s World Cup final made that especially clear when, within the span of a few hours, a pregame pop celebration was answered by an in-game punk protest.
As bad luck would have it, the event I saw at Luzhniki was a mostly meaningless group stage match between Denmark and France, which produced the 2018 World Cup’s only scoreless tie. But in the second half, there were some echoes from the stadium’s past. The international crowd, having nothing to cheer for on either side, began to root instead for the host country. The chant, “RU-SSI-A! RU-SSI-A!,” performed with various accents and inflections, was one I’d hear a few more times in the following days. When the Russian team upset Spain, it rang throughout Saint Petersburg as locals and visitors sang together, embracing, waving flags, and exchanging high fives. Suddenly, improbably, after everything that had happened over the last several years, the world was cheering for Russia.
stadium arts, unlike museum arts, have long promoted a broad array of ideological positions for mass audiences.
There’s reason to heed the cheers. If the last year in sports has taught us anything, it is that stadium acts make political waves. During the 2018 off-season, NFL owners recognized the significance of the stadium itself when they tried to move “take a knee” protests off the field and into the locker room. In the United States, sporting events are among the occasions where people gather to perform the rituals of their nationality, which makes the sporting crowd also a political assembly. William Carlos Williams saw in “the crowd at the ball game” a representation of the nation; Colin Kaepernick got that nation’s attention.
As with the NFL and national politics, so with international sports and global politics. Whatever comes of this year’s political theater between North and South Korea, it had its origins in stadium theater. When North and South Korean athletes came together for the Parade of Nations at the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in February 2018, waving flags decorated with borderless, united, cerulean peninsulas, the idealistic sentiment seemed unlikely to extend beyond the space and time of the festival fantasy—four months after a North Korean ICBM launch and 40 miles from the DMZ. Now it appears that the Olympic gestures may have been preliminary steps toward actual statecraft, with a revival of “ping-pong diplomacy” and inter-Korean summits.
International athletic ceremonies, however, are never guaranteed to promote globalism over nationalism. Today’s stadium spectacles are still performed under the long shadow of Beijing’s 2008 Opening Ceremonies, which broadcast to the largest live TV audience in history the equally powerful Olympic values of national pride, strength, and discipline.1 A longer shadow is cast by the Berlin 1936 Games, whose militaristic pageantry and ethno-nationalist mythology remain immortalized in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. If, since the 1920s, as Bernard Vere has recently proposed (quoting an old Bauhaus director), “the stadium has carried the day against the art museum,” that is because stadium arts, unlike museum arts, have long promoted a broad array of ideological positions for mass audiences.2 Once an inspiration for Bertolt Brecht’s radical epic theater, now a commercial celebrity platform, the stadium is an adaptive stage—a site of fascist or state-socialist spectacle, of propaganda or pop.
The one thing that binds stadium arts together, as with works in any art form, is the demand that each new entry respond to its predecessors. When the Beijing Ceremonies began with 2,008 Fou drummers beating a synchronized LED countdown, it not only set the tone for the show to come but also recalled the first moments of Athens 2004, in which similar devices referenced Greece’s bid to revive the ancient Games. China signaled its arrival as a new Olympic host by asserting its own antiquity against such originalism. The unprecedented expense and discipline of Beijing’s ceremonies called for new responses in turn: for London 2012, irreverent humor, and for Rio 2016, improvisatory gambiarra. At the Winter Games of 2022, the world will be watching Beijing again, to see if it can live up to its own standard—or if, instead, it shows a softer side.
Russia was under the same spotlight this summer. Four years ago, Russia hosted the Sochi Winter Olympics, with Opening Ceremonies showcasing the greatest hits in Russian culture—Dostoevsky, War and Peace, the Soviet avant-garde, Swan Lake. Unfortunately for the hosts, the most memorable moment was a mistake, when the fifth Olympic ring failed to expand from its position as a suspended snowflake, leaving an enormous and ominous asterisk hanging over the event. After Russia’s doping program was exposed in 2016, that asterisk seemed prescient. Russia’s scandals in politics and in sport have only multiplied, its international image tarnished by accusations of election meddling, spy poisoning, and premeditated hooligan attacks. The purely patriotic cultural program of the Sochi Olympics would have struck the wrong note, four years later, for the World Cup.
In the meantime, stadium ceremonies themselves have changed. In the summer of 2016, during the months of Brexit and “America First,” Fernando Meirelles, celebrated director of City of God and creative director for the Rio Opening Ceremonies, planned a different kind of declaration for Brazil:
Countries are always talking about themselves, their contribution to the world and how they are the centre of the universe. Like Athens: western culture came from here, and Beijing: we invented paper and the compass, and London: the industrial revolution and the internet revolution. It’s all “hey world, this is me, me, me.”
We decided to do it the other way round. We are talking about “us,” how we should behave from now on, not just Brazil, mankind. … I love Brazil. I have my roots here, but I feel myself a member of the world, I am patriotic for the planet more than for Brazil.3
The Rio Ceremonies accordingly emphasized the intercontinental origins of Brazilian culture and the global crises of deforestation and climate change. South Korea’s choice to wave a unified flag (and waive its national one) built on similar internationalist ideals.
Ceremonies for World Cups are typically more about pop stars than politics, but Luzhniki took that emphasis to new extremes and thereby made a declaration of its own. Compared to the Sochi Ceremonies, those in Moscow made virtually no references to Russian history, choosing instead the aesthetic of the FIFA Fan Shop. This was, by design, a West-friendly Russia, globalist in its commercialism, featuring foreign stars and souvenir tie-ins. Spectators interested in the rich history of Russian sports had to look elsewhere: the Shchusev Museum of Architecture’s display of USSR stadium designs or the New Tretyakov’s paintings and sculptures of Soviet athletes.
International sporting events are like medieval carnivals: ordinary rules are suspended, egalitarian ideals touted, unsung underdogs crowned as kings—but only for a time, before authorities intervene.
These alternative exhibitions suggest a more immediate kind of cultural competition at sporting festivals. Olympic Games and World Cups offer opportunities and audiences not only for state-selected directors but also for dissident actors. As long as there have been official Olympic arts (since about 1912), there have been protest exhibitions by local academies and avant-garde coteries.4 At this year’s World Cup, protest art entered the stadium itself when four members of Pussy Riot ran onto the field at Luzhniki. Taking inspiration from Soviet-era poet Dmitri Prigov, who also had a history of disobedience and arrest, the invaders donned costumes for their own show, “Policeman Enters the Game.” As a Twitter manifesto explained, the act staged a conflict between the “heavenly policeman” who organized “this World Cup’s beautiful carnival” and the “earthly policeman” “ready to disperse rallies.” On cue, the four runners were immediately arrested by Luzhniki’s “earthly policemen,” its stadium security.
The field run may not have lasted long, but the wording of the script was spot-on. International sporting events are like medieval carnivals: ordinary rules are suspended, egalitarian ideals touted, unsung underdogs crowned as kings—but only for a time, before authorities intervene. For the duration of the 2018 World Cup, from mid-June to mid-July, you had the feeling that you were entering a topsy-turvy, fairground version of Russia rather than Russia itself: the “It’s a Small World” Cup. A visa was no longer needed to enter the country, only a game ticket and a colorful, laminated “Fan ID” badge. Students with bright T-shirts and foam fingers acted as guides, interpreters, and mascots. Fans in colorful jerseys were everywhere, singing songs in foreign languages (often not their own). Occasionally the carnival wore thin. On the way out of Spartak Stadium, a line of soldiers stared grimly at fans who, treating them like the student interpreters, tried to get a smile or a high five. On my last night in Moscow, I had my first glimpse of how carnival invariably ends, with the reassertion of order.
Many fear what Putin will do with his renewed popularity after the tournament, given that the Sochi Olympics coincided with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The World Cup’s apparent cosmopolitan liberalism may well have been a ploy. Alexander Agapov, head of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation, put it this way on the subject of gay rights: “By emphasizing the safety of foreign LGBT fans, authorities have managed to present homosexuality as something foreign, un-Russian.”5 Russians and visitors alike, caught up in the intoxicating international camaraderie of the games, should be wary of the hangover. The Berlin Olympics too (to make an extreme comparison) were used to reassure the world that nothing was wrong. Just yesterday, one of Pussy Riot’s pitch invaders, Pyotr Verzilov, was hospitalized, unable to see or talk, after a suspected poisoning, possibly while in jail. As group members face repeated arrests, Pussy Riot has stated what the world suspects: “This is an act of revenge for our action at the World Cup.”6
But even if the cheers for Russia drown out the voices of protest, brief encounters between foreign and local fans may have unintended consequences. They are reminders that the Russian people are not the Russian state, just as soccer fans are not FIFA. Visitors to Russia for the first time marveled, after months of fears and warnings abroad, at how welcoming their hosts were, telling me they wanted to come back soon. Conversely, in train cars and over dinner tables, I heard Russians list the other countries they were rooting for as they made their own jokes about Putin’s conspiratorial role behind the national team’s surprising run. My sense was that Russians know how they’re perceived (and misperceived) in the West and also recognize the limits of the picture of the West they see. One Russian friend was hopeful that after the Cup, people on both sides would begin to see through the distortions.
In the meantime, stadium artists—official and unofficial—need to look ahead. If any World Cup will merit protest, it is the Qatar tournament of 2022, whose arenas are backed by FIFA corruption and were built by indentured laborers.7 If any World Cup will test sport’s internationalist ideals, it is the North American “United Bid” of 2026, being organized at a time when the continent’s borders are as contentious as ever. As the global audience grows with new hosts and teams, so does the responsibility of those who address their audience, knowing that others will be competing against them for the convictions of that same crowd.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- “Beijing Olympics Draw Largest Ever Global TV Audience,” Nielsen, September 5, 2008; “Opening Ceremony Draws 2 Billion Viewers,” Nielsen, August 14, 2008. ↩
- Bernard Vere, Sport and Modernism in the Visual Arts in Europe, c. 1909–39 (Manchester University Press, 2018), pp. 143–44, 149–50. ↩
- Beatriz Garcia, “Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony, the Director’s Insight,” Culture @ the Olympics, August 5, 2016. ↩
- Richard Stanton, The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions (Trafford, 2000), pp. 30–48. ↩
- Oliver Carroll, “The Dark Reality Behind Russia’s Promise of an LGBT-Friendly World Cup,” The Independent, May 21, 2018. ↩
- Daniel Victor, “Pussy Riot Activist Hospitalized in Moscow as Fellow Members Suspect Poisoning,” New York Times, September 13, 2018. ↩
- Barry Meier, “Labor Scrutiny for FIFA as a World Cup Rises in the Qatar Desert,” New York Times, July 15, 2015. ↩