SOCHI, Russia – Music, dance and plenty of Russian bravado unleashed the ultimate achievement of Vladimir Putin’s Russia on Feb. 7 – a Winter Olympics to showcase the best athletes on ice and snow that the world has to offer.
The opening ceremony on the edge of the Black Sea and subsequent games are Russia’s chance to tell its story of post-Soviet resurrection to the world, and dispel the anger, fear and suspicion that has marred the buildup to these most expensive Olympics ever.
Just after the sun set over the Caucasus Mountains and along the seashore just outside Fisht Stadium in the wet-paint-fresh Olympic Park, Russian TV star Yana Churikova shouted to a crowd still taking their seats: “Welcome to the center of the universe!”
For the next two weeks, it certainly is for the 3,000 athletes who will compete in 98 events, more people and contests than ever at the Winter Games.
American snowboarder Shaun White is certain to wow crowds in the Krasnaya Polyana resort halfpipe. On the ice, Canadian hockey players Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews will try to add another gold medal to their collection of Stanley Cups. In the rink, American’s Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold will try to dethrone South Korean marvel and defending goal medalist Yuna Kim.
But every athlete who makes it to Sochi is honored with the title Olympian, and a satellite image of the earth was projected on the floor of Fisht Stadium as they entered during the parade of nations, the map shifting so the athletes emerged from their own country. The athletes from the Cayman Islands even arrived in shorts!
After Greece, traditionally first as the birthplace nation of Olympic competition, the teams marching into the stadium in Russian alphabetical order, putting the U.S. between Slovenia and Tajkistan.
The ceremony was crafted as a celebration of Russia and is presenting Putin’s version: 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.
And it didn’t take long for that classic Russian pride in their nation to come shining through.
As Churikova rallied the crowd to scream “louder than ever,” she told the 40,000 fans in their cool blue seats their keepsakes from the night would last 1,000 years. When explaining the show would be hosted in English, French and Russian, she joked that it didn’t matter, because in Sochi, everyone “speaks every language in the world.”
The official ceremony opened with the Russian alphabet projected on the stadium floor, as a young girl told the story of her country’s heroes and their globally renowned achievements: composer Tchaikovsky; artists Kandinsky, Chagall and Malevich; writers Tolstoy, Pushkin and Chekhov; Mendeleev and his periodic table; the first spaceship Sputnik and Russia’s space stations.
There was a glitch, too, as the lighting of the five Olympic Rings overshadowed the singing of the Russian national anthem. Five stars on cables drifted together above the stadium, and four of them turned into Olympic rings – but the fifth never unfurled and they all failed to erupt into white flames as planned, marring what’s traditionally a key moment in the ceremony.
In a nod to Russia’s long history, the anthem was sung by the 600-year-old Sretensky Monastery Choir, a symbol of an increasing rapprochement between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church. The monastery is led by Tikhon Shevkunov, who is known to be Putin’s confessor and one of the nation’s most influential clergymen.
Not on the set list: Putin’s repression of dissent, fears of terrorism and inconsistent security measures at the Olympics, which will take place just a few hundred miles (kilometers) away from the sites of an insurgency and routine militant violence. Also looked over: the tensions with the United States over neighboring Ukraine, NSA leaker Edward Snowden and Syria.
And the unpaid 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.
The show cleared its first chance to focus on one of those issues without so much as a wink, as Russian singers Tatu performed Not Gonna Get Us – steering clear of the very real anger over a Russian law banning gay “propaganda” aimed at minors that is being used to discriminate against gays.
The women in Tatu put on a lesbian act that is largely seen as an attention-getting gimmick, but on this night, they merely held hands, stopping short of the groping and kissing of their past performances. At MTV awards in 2003, the duo performed with dozens of young women dressed in tight-fitting schoolgirl uniforms that they stripped off in the end.
This time, their lead-in act was the Red Army Choir MVD signing Daft Punk’s Grammy-winning Get Lucky.
While some world leaders stayed away, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was in Sochi and made a video speech just before the start of the opening ceremony’s main show. Ban has spoken out about the anti-gay law, but did not refer to it at the opening ceremony.
Asked whether Putin might arrive at the ceremony from the air, like stunt actors playing James Bond and Queen Elizabeth II did at in London, the ceremony’s director, Konstantin Ernst, said, “It’s hardly worth hoping for that.”
Indeed, Putin only waived from his booth alongside IOC President Thomas Bach at the ceremony’s opening.
The Winter Games ceremony is generally a more low-key event than the summer opener. Ernst said organizers tried to keep it from dragging out too long, since most viewers only care to watch their own team and its key rivals.
But who will carry the Olympic torch to light the cauldron for the games, after the flame’s unprecedented journey to the North Pole, the cosmos, Europe’s highest mountain peak and beyond?
“It’s the biggest secret ever,” Ernst said, with a smile.