17 July 2012 by Vitali Vitaliev
What was the technology of that spectacular deceit?
To begin with, the authorities made sure that during those three weeks the shops were stuffed with all sorts of "defitsitniye" (hard-to-obtain) goods. My most long-lasting memory of the Moscow Olympics is ... canned beer which I tried for the first time in my life. The beer was Finnish, and its sudden appearance on the normally bare Moscow shop shelves was an important part of the campaign to promote the Soviet way of living, albeit how exactly could the brief availability of Finnish beer - as well as New Zealand mutton, Dutch butter and other Western goodies - could promote Soviet way of living remained a mystery. Queues disappeared, as if by magic, and a corpulent sales woman at our local bakery (now clad in a specially allocated - for three weeks only! - and near-white gown instead of her normal dirt-grey one) who only yesterday was yelling at the top of her lungs: "You are many and I am one!", asked me: "What can I do for you?" and smiled through clenched teeth. Having spotted her smile, which looked more like a snarl, some customers dropped their "just-in-case" string shopping bags and fled the shop in panic...
The militiamen (policemen) swarmed all over the city sporting snow-white (well, again, almost) uniforms. The streets were clean and deserted, with most roads turned into giant ZIL Lanes in which only VIP limos and buses carrying foreigners (of which there weren't many due to the international boycott in protest against the war in Afghanistan) were allowed to travel. Most of the hotels stood empty and on stand-by, in case of a sudden influx of visitors from abroad. On top of it all, wild rumours were persistently circulated at public gatherings and special trade union meetings (we had one at a research institute where I then worked) about devious Westerners who covertly injected fatal drugs into Soviet citizens unsuspecting behinds in the underground crowd and treated ever-so-trusting Soviet children with poisoned sweets. The aim was to minimise contacts with those few foreigners who did turn up despite the boycott. On stadium terraces, they were supposed to sit inside special, isolated from Soviet spectators, enclosures.
The biggest shock happened with the closure of the Olympics. The three-week paradise ended, and overnight the shop assistants in their old dirty overalls became rude again, delicacies disappeared form the counters, policemen reverted to wearing their normal grey-blue baggy tunics, trucks no longer brought ice to Pepsi stalls, and the famous American drink was sold tepid. As for the queues, they were longer than ever: the whole country rushed to the re-opened capital attracted by the stories of unseen abundance. But there was nothing left. Only the wind was rolling empty Finnish beer cans along the curbs of newly littered roads...
It would be both ridiculous and unfair to draw any serious parallels between 1980 Moscow and 2012 London, yet, to be honest, I cannot help noticing some small and worrisome, similarities - if not in the scale of the window-dressing exercise, then definitely in the technology of it all. And I am not alone. "If you live in London, a little bit of Soviet Russia will be coming down your way during the Olympics... What we will be getting are ZIL lanes," according to Christian Wolmar, Britain's leading transport commentator, writing in The Oldie magazine. Here I have to explain that ZILs were the favourite black limos of the Soviet officialdom. I had a ride in a ZIL only once - during a filming trip to Chernobyl where one of them had been abandoned by a visiting big cheese due to its (I mean the vehicle's) high radioactive contamination.
London's ZIL lanes will be reserved exclusively for the Olympics VIPs, and ordinary motorists who strand into them by accident, will be subject to hefty fines.
Here it has to be said that after a huge public outcry (something that would have been impossible in the 1980s Moscow unless, of course, it was a chorus of unanimous admiration and approval) TFL chiefs said they would allow limited access to all 30 miles of ZIL lanes to non-VIP motorists at certain off-peak times (like, say, at 3 o'clock am?).
Having backtracked a bit on ZIL lanes, TFL recently emailed its customers (including yours truly) advising "to avoid driving in central London and on and around the ORN and PRN", meaning the Olympic and Paralympic Route Networks (incidentally, I find this passion for tongue-breaking abbreviations unmistakeably Soviet). And although I was never intending to drive either in central London or on and around the unpronounceable ORN/PRN, the moment I read the forbidding email I felt a powerful urge to do so - out of pure spirit of contradiction, I presume.
And then there's sponsorship - all permeating, like Moscow's Olympics mascot, Misha the Bear, and at times almost totalitarian... This is where technology and manufacturing proper do come into the picture - from the Oral B PC500 - an "official Olympic electric toothbrush" (image by Getty, the Olympics official photographic agency!), Omega - "the official Olympic timekeeper (for the 25th time in history, it has to be noted, so Omega does keep its timings well) and the NFC-enabled Samsung Galaxy S3 official Olympics phone (will then the calls made from any other phone be officcially unofficial?) to an "official Olympic beer Heineken": no British ales will be allowed inside the venues. The latter brings back memories of the Finnish canned beer in Moscow which could also be branded "official", simply because it was the only one available.
I could of course go on and on about the small Moscow reminders of London 2012: corporate sponsors whose environmental records place them among the world's biggest polluters; food and drink providers whose products could be terrific for Michael Phelps' 12,000 calories a day diet, but would only clog the arteries of those visitors who do not have to swim 52 miles daily. But not wishing to be a party pooper, I'd better stop here and quote George Orwell who once wrote: "Sport is war minus the shooting".
I sincerely hope that, despite the much-criticised deployment of Mach 2.5 Rapier missile systems (another unavoidable 2012 Olympics technological association), there won't be any shooting in London - except for the eponymous Olympic event and the fireworks at the opening and closing ceremonies of the tremendously successful Olympic Games.
Posted By: Vitali Vitaliev @ 17 July 2012 02:28 PM General
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