Philip Barker

The announcement that an excerpt of Piano Concerto No. 1 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky has been accepted for use at medal ceremonies for Russian athletes in Tokyo will cause eyebrows to be raised for a number of reasons.

As was the case at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, the Russians will be banned from using their own national anthem and flag as part of ongoing sanctions for doping.

The Piano Concerto was used at the World Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm earlier this year, when skaters from Russia won three of the four titles. Russian Olympic Committee President Stanislav Pozdnyakov said the Figure Skating Federation of Russia had suggested its use for the Olympics.

"This melody has associations with our homeland. The composer Tchaikovsky and his work form part of world musical heritage."

In terms of composers, Russia is very much spoilt for choice. Yet the use of a work by Tchaikovsky might come as something of a surprise because the composer was gay.

Shortly before the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his "gay propaganda" legislation. This made it illegal to, in the Government’s words "spread information about non-traditional sexual behaviour".

Amnesty International described the law as "homophobic". There was widespread protest from other countries and the Americans responded by sending openly gay tennis icon Billie-Jean King as part of the Presidential delegation to the Games. 

United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon told the International Olympic Committee (IOC) session in Sochi: "We must all raise our voices against attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people. 

Part of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.1 will be played when
Part of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.1 will be played when "neutral" Russian athletes win gold at Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images

"We must oppose the arrests, imprisonment and discriminatory restrictions they face."

At the Opening Ceremony of the Games, The Coronation March, written by Tchaikovsky in honour of Tsar Alexander III, was played as the Olympic Flag was trooped into the stadium.

In an article for Amnesty International, journalist Anthony Holden reflected on the moment.

"As a Tchaikovsky devotee, I had therefore been wondering how the powers-that-be would deal with the awkward problem of including the music of Russia's national composer."

In 1878, after his marriage had failed, Tchaikovsky had written to his brother Anatoly that "there is nothing more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature."

Yet few months before Sochi 2014 opened, Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky had issued a formal denial of the composer's sexuality. A Russian television documentary also played down this aspect of Tchaikovsky’s life.

Reuters news agency reported that Putin himself had told Russian television station Cannel One that "Tchaikovsky was gay - although it’s true that we don’t love him because of that - but he was a great musician and we all love his music. So what?"

Holden wrote of the "absurd recent denial by the Russian authorities that - like so many other great artists throughout history, Russian or otherwise - Tchaikovsky happened to be gay."

The Opening Ceremony also incorporated music from the ballet Swan Lake featuring prima ballerina Diana Vishneva.

Organisers described it as "a drama that merges the bird-like dancers of a national ballet with a symbol of peace and hope that stretches back to Noah’s Ark: The Dove. It has been performed thousands of times in different ways but never like tonight."

As the fireworks crackled over the arena after the lighting of the Flame, the Russian dance from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite provided an accompaniment.

Throughout the Games his music could also be heard alongside other great Russian composers as the soundtrack for a daily show close to the Olympic Cauldron in which water fountains soared in time to the music.

The Vancouver 2010 Closing Ceremony featured the music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky ©Getty Images
The Vancouver 2010 Closing Ceremony featured the music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky ©Getty Images

Then at the Closing Ceremony, the Coronation anthem was played again, this time as the Russian Flag was trooped into the stadium. This may well have been a late decision. Dimitri Tiomkin's music had been listed as the soundtrack for the entry of the flag.

Tchaikovsky’s work had been prominent 34 years earlier when Russia previously hosted the Games in the Soviet era.

The 1980 Moscow Olympics opened at the Luzhniki Stadium - then known as the Lenin Stadium - with the chimes of the Kremlin and the presidential fanfare. Then the third movement of the Symphony Pathetique could be heard for the first major set piece.

The official report described "a colourful procession in which youths and girls in Ancient Greek costumes rode around the arena in three chariots, symbolising continuity of the Olympic ideals of antiquity with those of the modern Games".

An excerpt from the Pathetique was also heard during the Closing Ceremony of Vancouver 2010 when performers from Sochi took part in a presentation before the official handover of the ceremonial Olympic Flag. Ballet dancers dressed in costumes from ancient Greece to the present danced as the music formed part of one of the most stylish handover sequences yet seen.

Tchaikovsky’s music had been heard long before. 

In 1968 American figure skater Peggy Fleming chose the same piece for her gold medal-winning performance at the Grenoble Winter Olympics.

Ice dancers Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov were part of Russia’s gold medal-winning team in Sochi. They performed to Swan Lake in the free dance. It proved a popular choice for many skaters.

The Russian athletes who take part in Tokyo will be known as "ROC" in the same way that those who took part in at Pyeongchang 2018 were designated "Olympic Athlete from Russia" or "OAR".

For Tokyo, the Russians had originally wanted to use Katyusha, a folk song which enjoyed great popularity during the Second World War. This was rejected, deemed too closely associated with Russia.

Some will consider that any choice of music is an unnecessary concession and the uniform to be worn by competing athletes seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to Russia's national flag which is banned from official display at the Games.

Fehaid Al-Deehani heard the Olympic Hymn played to mark his double trap gold medal at Rio 2016, with Kuwait's National Olympic Committee banned ©Getty Images
Fehaid Al-Deehani heard the Olympic Hymn played to mark his double trap gold medal at Rio 2016, with Kuwait's National Olympic Committee banned ©Getty Images

In the past, other National Olympic Committees (NOCs) have been sanctioned because of problems of governance. Their athletes were styled "Independent Olympic Athletes" and required to march under the Olympic Flag. When Kuwait’s Fehaid Al-Deehani won double trap shooting gold at Rio 2016, the Olympic Hymn was played for his medal ceremony. He had earlier rejected a request to carry the Olympic Flag at the opening ceremony.

In the past, the national anthem has not always been played at medal ceremonies. When East and West Germany competed under a united flag in the 1950s and 1960s, an extract of the Ode to Joy from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was played to signify a gold medal.

At Moscow 1980, many European nations used the Olympic Flag and anthem instead of their own. The Games took place despite an American-inspired boycott, but the Governments of Australia and Britain were amongst those to oppose the participation of their athletes.

Although Soviet authorities objected, the use of the Olympic Flag and anthem was sanctioned by the IOC to assist those NOCs which defied the boycott.

At around the same time, agreement was reached for both Chinas to compete alongside one another. The accord included the stipulation that Chinese Taipei would not use the national flag of Taiwan, but one designed for the NOC. The music used to mark gold medals is not their national anthem, but the nation's "flag anthem".

In 2018 a united Korean team drawn from North and South Korea took part in the women’s ice hockey competition.

It had been designated that the traditional Korean song Arirang would be played had they won the gold medal. Unfortunately for them, they lost all their matches.