WHEN SHAUN WHITE announced he was dropping out of the inaugural slopestyle snowboarding event just days before the competition, I was pretty bummed. The two-time Olympic gold medalist cited safety reasons after several competitors, including White himself, were injured while testing the course. It was hard not to feel robbed of a thrilling spectacle — and, of course, a chance at the gold. After all, slopestyle, one of 12 new events at this Winter Olympics, was imported with great fanfare from the Winter X Games — the X, remember, standing for “extreme.”
Since 1998, when snowboarding was first added to the lineup, the IOC has been turning to extreme sports to keep the Winter Olympics relevant and bolster lagging viewership, particularly among younger viewers. Extreme sports now account for nearly a fifth of the Winter Olympics’ 98 events. Slopestyle is a daredevil’s sport if ever there was one — a steep downhill slope with high jumps and obstacles like rails and boxes. Riders are rewarded for their style, creativity, and daring tricks: in essence, the more extreme, the better. Right?
Of course, from the beginning these Olympics have seemed extreme on so many levels: from the extreme spending (a record $51 billion) and corruption (as much as a third of that price tag reportedly spent on kickbacks and bribes), to scandals like unfinished facilities, tainted drinking water, terror threats, and the international response to Russia’s enactment of a law banning gay “propaganda.”
Then came the kaleidoscopic opening ceremony, which, despite a technical glitch early on and some flagrant revisionism in its presentation of Russia’s thousand-year history, served as a powerful reminder of the country’s massive cultural presence on the world stage. It featured music by Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, as well as inspired segments that invoked the avant-garde art of Kazimir Malevich and a scene from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Chekhov and Dostoevsky represented the Cyrillic letters Ч and Д in the opening video sequence. The message was clear: Russia was pulling out the big guns.
On Friday the US — despite the loss of its biggest gun in slopestyle — grabbed the event’s first gold medal. Sage Kotsenburg upended expectations when his quirky style and an impressive spur-of-the-moment trick he’d never tried before set the bar too high for the Canadians everyone expected to win. (Mark McMorris took the bronze and Max Parrot, who had taunted Shaun White in a tweet for being too “scared” to compete, placed fifth.) Kotsenburg seemed more surprised than anyone at his win, which marks a memorable start to the Winter Olympics’ newest — and, at least in its Sochi guise, most dangerous — sport.
New, dangerous, surprising, extreme — these descriptions of slopestyle could just as easily characterize the master vision behind not only “Putin’s Games” but also Putin’s Russia. And conspicuously, if unsurprisingly, absent from the opening ceremony’s cultural and literary love-in was any mention of one of Russia’s most important — and controversial — contemporary writers, Vladimir Sorokin.
Sorokin (who did not represent the Cyrillic letter С in the opening sequence) shares little with the Russian president beyond a first name. His darkly violent novels, particularly Day of the Oprichnik, are often seen as critical of Putin — although when you’re an American who’s never lived in Russia the subtler ironies and cultural in-jokes are easily lost. The novel follows a day in the life of a high-ranking oprichnik (a sort of KGB officer in a dystopian future) as he collects bribes, punishes the enemies of the tsar, takes a mind-boggling amount of drugs, and ends up in a centipede-like chain of oprichniki sodomizing each other. But don’t worry: these men are definitely not gay, and there’s no propaganda. It’s just good old fashioned, drug-induced man love, Sorokin-style.
There’s actually quite a lot of sodomy in Sorokin’s novels, which seems to be the author’s metaphor for life in contemporary Russia. It’s a metaphor that must rankle Putin on some deep-seated Freudian level, given his much-publicized war on all things gay. Some years ago, members of a pro-Putin youth movement brought pornography charges against Sorokin, whose novel Blue Lard notoriously depicts a clone of Khrushchev sodomizing a clone of Stalin — obviously the scene didn’t make the cut for the opening ceremony! — and tossed his books into a giant toilet they constructed outside the Bolshoi theater. (Seriously, where were these people when the toilets were being installed in Sochi?)
Like his compatriot and fellow novelist, Victor Pelevin — whose novella The Yellow Arrow depicts people living out their lives on a speeding train headed towards a broken bridge — Sorokin writes in metaphors that seem trickier and more twisted than a Cab Double Cork 1260. The Ice Trilogy, for example, follows a cult of people “awakened” by the ice of the comet that exploded over Siberia in 1908, in what’s known as the Tunguska Event; these “Brothers and Sisters of the Light” go around with sledgehammers made of the mystical ice, tying up potential converts and bashing in their chests — which either “awakens” them or kills them. The awakened ones get to lie naked together while their hearts “speak.” It gets more bizarre from there.
While I doubt ice hammering will be added to the winter events in Pyeongchang in 2018, The Ice Trilogy is a pretty wild ride. Exhilarating — like so much of Russia’s great literature. It’s risky, it’s bold, it’s extreme. And while I’ve never actually snowboarded slopestyle before, I don’t mind risking the analogy: Sorokin’s novels are a riotous downhill ride with dangerously high jumps, rails to crack your ribs on, and plenty of room for Back 1620 Japan Air-style surprises — not to mention enough white powder in one form or another to go around. Sage may be taking the gold home to America, but Russia has its own sage in Sorokin, even if Putin isn’t comfortable being out and proud about it.
Jeremy Glazier lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he is Associate Professor of English at Ohio Dominican University. His poems have appeared in A Public Space, Antioch Review, Denver Quarterly, The Beloit Poetry Journal, and elsewhere.