SOCHI, Russia - A Russia in search of global vindication kicked off the Sochi Olympics looking more like a Russia that likes to party, with a pulse-raising opening ceremony about fun and sports instead of terrorism, gay rights and coddling despots. And that's just the way Russian President Vladimir Putin wants these Winter Games to go.
SOCHI, Russia — A Russia in search of global vindication kicked off the Sochi Olympics looking more like a Russia that likes to party, with a pulse-raising opening ceremony about fun and sports instead of terrorism, gay rights and coddling despots.
And that’s just the way Russian President Vladimir Putin wants these Winter Games to go.
The world’s premier athletes on ice and snow have more to worry about than geopolitics as they plunge into the biggest challenges of their lives on the mountain slopes of the Caucasus and in the wet-paint-fresh arenas on the Black Sea shores.
Superlatives abounded in the ceremony in Fisht Stadium and the mood soared as Tchaikovsky met — strangely enough — pseudo-lesbian pop duo Tatu and their hit Not Gonna Get Us. Russian TV presenter Yana Churikova shouted: “Welcome to the center of the universe!”
Yet no amount of cheering could drown out the real world.
Fears of terrorism, which have dogged these games since Putin won them amid controversy seven years ago, were stoked during the ceremony itself. A passenger aboard a flight bound for Istanbul said there was a bomb on board and tried to divert the plane to Sochi. The plane landed safely, and the man, a Ukrainian, was taken into custody.
The show opened with an embarrassing hiccup, as one of five snowflakes failed to unfurl as planned into the Olympic rings, forcing organizers to jettison a fireworks display and disrupting one of the most-symbolic moments in an opening ceremony.
That allowed for an old Soviet tradition of whitewashing problems to resurface. State-run broadcaster Rossiya 1 substituted a shot from a rehearsal with the rings unfolding successfully into its live broadcast.
Also not noted in the show: Putin’s repression of dissent and inconsistent security measures at the Olympics, which will take place just a few hundred miles away from the sites of a long-running insurgency and routine militant violence.
And more things that got ignored: the poorly paid migrant workers who helped build up the Sochi site from scratch, the disregard for local residents, the environmental abuse during construction, the pressure on activists, and the huge amounts of Sochi construction money that disappeared to corruption.
Some world leaders purposely stayed away, but U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and dozens of others were in Sochi for the ceremony. He didn’t mention the very real anger over a Russian law banning gay “propaganda” aimed at minors that is being used to discriminate against gay people.
But IOC President Thomas Bach won cheers for addressing it yesterday, telling the crowd it’s possible to hold Olympics “with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason.”
For all the criticism, there was no shortage of pride at the ceremony in what Russia has achieved with these games, after building up an Olympic Park out of swampland. The head of the Sochi organizing committee, Dmitry Chernyshenko, captured the mood of many Russians present when he said, “We’re now at the heart of that dream that became reality.”
“The games in Sochi are our chance to show the whole world the best of what Russia is proud of,” he said. “Our hospitality, our achievements, our Russia!”
The ceremony presented Putin’s version of today’s Russia: a country with a rich and complex history emerging confidently from a rocky two decades and now capable of putting on a major international sports event.
Putin himself was front and center, declaring the games open from his box high above the stadium floor. Earlier, he looked down as the real stars of the games — about 3,000 athletes, dressed in winter wear in their national colors to ward off the evening chill and a light dusting of man-made snow — walked onto a satellite image of Earth projected on the floor of the stadium. The map shifted so the athletes appeared to emerge from their own country.
As always, Greece — the birthplace of Olympic competition — came first in the parade of nations. Five new teams, all from warm weather climates, joined the Winter Olympians for the first time. Togo’s flagbearer looked dumbstruck with wonder, but those veterans from the Cayman Islands had the style to arrive in shorts.
The smallest teams often earned the biggest cheers from the crowd of 40,000, with an enthusiastic three-person Venezuelan team winning roars of approval as flagbearer and alpine skier Antonio Pardo danced and jumped along to the electronic music.
Only neighboring Ukraine, scene of a tense and ongoing standoff between a pro-Russian president and Western-leaning protesters, could compete with those cheers.
That is, until the Russians arrived.
Walking in last to the thundering Not Gonna Get Us bass line, which struggled to overcome the ovations from the hometown crowd, the Russians reveled in all the attention.
The country always places huge significance on the Olympics, carefully watching the medal count. The Russians’ dismal 15-medal performance in Vancouver four years ago is on the minds of many.
But these games are particularly important, as many Russians are still insecure about their place in the world after the end of the Cold War and the years since that have been dominated by the United States and, to an increasing degree, China.
In this opening ceremony, Russia put on display its cultural and scientific history — from Malevich’s avant-garde paintings to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, from Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements to the Soviet space achievements.
Capping it all off, Russian hockey great Vladislav Tretiak and three-time gold medalist Irina Rodnina joined hands to light the Olympic cauldron. He’s often called the greatest goaltender of all time by those who saw him play; she won 10 world pairs figure-skating titles.
That was how it ended. At the top, the show avoided talking about prickly issues, even when the women in Tatu took the stage. The duo, who put on a lesbian act that is largely seen as an attention-getting gimmick, held hands during their performance, stopping short of the groping and kissing of their past performances.