Russia warms up for Sochi with on-screen triumphs

Agence France-Presse

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Before the Winter Olympic Games kicks off, Russian cinema-goers savor victories in sports-themed films

CHAMPION. Svetlana Zhurova of Russia skates to win the women's 500m speedskating gold medal at the Winter Olympics in February 2006. Photo by Torsten Silz/Agence France-Presse

MOSCOW, Russia  Before the Winter Olympic Games even kick off on Friday, February 7, Russian cinema-goers are savoring victories in sports-themed Kremlin-funded films, from a patriotic biopic of top athletes to a remake of “Some Like it Hot” set in Sochi.

In “Champions”, a feel-good movie released last month, an actress plays speed skater Svetlana Zhurova, who made a surprise comeback to win Olympic gold in Turin in 2006 at the age of 34.

In one scene, a sports official hands Zhurova a nail and tells her to hang up her skates.

“You don’t have a hope of the Olympics anymore,” he says. But she defiantly insists: “You should never give up your dream.”

“Champions” tells five tales of triumph over adversity based on Zhurova, ice hockey player Ilya Kovalchuk, figure-skating duo Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, biathlete Nikolai Kruglov and snowboarder Yekaterina Ilyukhina, who will compete at Sochi.

The makers agreed the script with the real-life athletes, who attended the premiere.

Only Zhurova and the figure-skating pair have actually won Olympic gold, while Kruglov won silver at Turin.

But such details may not worry audiences caught up in the tear-jerking action.

At the premiere, the audience broke into applause during a scene in which Kovalchuk  struggling to stay in the national team  watches a video message from a young fan.

The little boy wearing Kovalchuk’s oversized ice hockey shirt, tells him: “Don’t forget we are Russia, we can beat anyone!”

Winter sports are something of a national religion in the country, where figure skater Yevgeny Plushenko or gap-toothed ice hockey player Alexander Ovechkin are far more feted than any footballer which piles on the pressure for the country’s 223 athletes at the games.

The poster tagline for “Champions” is “The victories we already have.”

“The joy at each separate victory grows into non-stop euphoria. The audiences claps and shouts ‘bravo’. … Now they are all ready to root for the Sochi Olympics, according to the set scenario,” wrote the Ogonyok weekly.

Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky said the film was “very well-timed”.

“It’s a story of real victories, where there is no element of chance,” he said in comments to the state RIA Novosti news agency.

Zhurova, who was for a time an MP for ruling party United Russia and is “mayor” of one of the Olympic Villages in Sochi, said at the premiere: “This film is basically for young people, so that they are inspired by our victories.”

“Made in less than a year with significant state support, it isn’t commercial at all, but purely ideological,” Ogonyok wrote.

“This is no feast for film lovers, but it’s a fully satisfying breakfast for future champions,” wrote news site.

Showing off Sochi

Bizarrely, the government has also given funding to a remake of the classic US gender-bending comedy “Some Like It Hot”.

The film was shot at the flashy new Roza Khutor ski resort, which will host several Olympic events, and it showcases the new hotels, cafes and ski slopes of the “Olympic capital”.

The male heroes of the film, titled “In Sports, There Are Only Girls”, pass themselves off as members of the Russian women’s snowboarding team competing in a tournament ahead of the Olympics.

In Russia, Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy is known as “In Jazz, There Are Only Girls.”

Both “Champions” and “In Sports, There Are Only Girls” received funding from the government’s Cinema Fund, which favors patriotic projects.

At the premiere, producer Alexander Tsekalo thanked the Cinema Fund “because despite everything, this is the only organisation that helps those who try to make films”.

In the most spectacular scene, the characters go “freeriding” from a mountaintop after being dropped from a helicopter, zooming down to the strains of Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful”.

The film’s cross-dressing plot seems slightly risque given Russia’s controversial new law banning propaganda of homosexuality, which has led to gestures of support for gay Russians and even calls to boycott the Olympics.

The comedy features a camp gay doctor who lets the men pass the team medical after they claim they are transvestites by choice  while in reality they are hiding from the mafia.

“I wouldn’t have the balls to do it,” the doctor says.

But Tsekalo insisted that the film’s drag theme was “without abnormality, just a kind of carnival of dressing-up”, in an interview with Express Gazeta website.

One of the heroes reprimands his new girlfriend, an American snowboarder, when she confides that her ex turned out to be gay.

“That’s also a woman’s fault. Feminism, you know!” –

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