Russia welcomes world to Sochi for Winter Olympics

The ceremonies concluded with a fireworks display that illuminated the nearby mountains and left the spectators in stunned silence.       Reuters
The ceremonies concluded with a fireworks display that illuminated the nearby mountains and left the spectators in stunned silence.       Reuters
Posted: February 09, 2014

SOCHI - Russia, a nation whose history and culture are as vast as its birch forests and grassy steppes, relied heavily on both Friday night, launching the 2014 Winter Olympics with an opening ceremony that was as ethereal as it was emotionally pleasing for the 40,000 spectators at Fisht Olympic Stadium.

While President Vladimir Putin had hoped his country's first Winter Games would showcase the new Russia, it was instead its rich artistic past that dominated.

The nearly three-hour spectacle igniting the most expensive Olympic Games ever, winter or summer, was infused by Tchaikovsky's music, by the ballet of the Bolshoi, and by the moody literature of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Modern technology also played a role in an event that clearly was influenced by the memorable 2008 ceremony that opened Beijing's Summer Games.

There were free-floating figures, many of them human, rising into the starry Russian sky. Lasers lit the stadium in a rainbow of colors and created shapes and images in the sky. And there were 4,700 performers, in a variety of roles and historic costumes, who appeared and vanished as if by magic.

It was not perfect, however. One of five snowflakes that rose above the stadium during the Russian anthem failed to transform into an Olympic ring. And none of the rings burst into flame as was intended, a relatively minor glitch for a Games whose run-up had been tainted by stories of unfinished hotels and undrinkable water.

Sochi's celebration, on a night so clear and mild it brought to mind autumn rather than winter, also acknowledged the country's czarist and Soviet pasts, the latter in the form of a tribute to the USSR's breakthrough space-race achievements in the 1960s.

An enormous men's choir, dressed in tailed powder-blue suits bedecked with gold epaulets, goose-stepped. Performers in modern dress marched mechanically through a segment on modern Russia and its still young and controversial capitalism.

The far-ranging ceremony referenced Russia's Orthodox religious roots, its pioneers and poets and, with a colorful liftoff of balloons, Moscow's famous domed architecture.

If it were all somewhat dreamlike, that apparently was the intent.

"We are now," Dmitry Chernyshenko, the head of Sochi's organizing committee, said, "at the heart of that dream that became reality.

"Our Games will be hot," he added, noting the subtropical climate of this Black Sea resort. "Not only because of the palm trees outside the ice arenas, but also because of the heat of our hearts.

"Our Games will be cool, with new modern sports, new heroes, new icons."

The show transpired without any mention or display of the disruptions promised by several groups, from U.S. activists protesting Russia's antigay laws to terrorists from Chechnya, the simmering region just 300 miles from here.

Putin, who willed and spent (an estimated $51 billion) his country's first Winter Olympics into existence, officially opened the 17-day international spectacle, though standing in his box with other dignitaries he appeared unusually stiff and nervous doing so.

Sixty-five world leaders and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon attended and watched the entry parade of 3,000 colorfully attired athletes from 88 nations.

Their number did not include President Obama, whose pointed absence was widely seen as a mute protest against Russia's antigay policies. Instead, the U.S. delegation included gay and lesbian ex-athletes, Brian Boitano and Caitlin Cahow.

Billie Jean King, the tennis legend who has spent much of her life crusading for gay rights, was supposed to attend but stayed home to be with her ailing mother.

The law that prevents Russians from proselytizing to youngsters about gay rights was mentioned indirectly during the speech by International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. Despite their tepid and vague nature, the comments drew a sizable ovation.

"Yes it is possible," Bach said, "even as competitors, to live together in harmony under one roof with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason."

The Russian audience reacted loudly and proudly often, saving its most audible response for the parade-ending entry of its Olympic athletes. But it also cheered warmly for Putin and tearfully after its national anthem.

The Russian team's entrance was accompanied by a hard-driving song from Russia's Tatu, one whose title - "Not Gonna Get Us" - may have been intended as an in-your-face message to all who have threatened disruptions in Sochi.

The large American contingent, more animated and boisterous than most, wore Ralph Lauren-designed outfits that featured jackets with a stars-and-stripes motif and knit caps topped by red-white-and-blue pom-poms.

The show, which began not long after a gorgeous sunset in the Caucasus Mountains, had its climax when former Russian national team hockey goalie Vladislav Tretiak, no stranger to Philadelphia Flyers fans, grabbed the hand of a three-time gold-medalist, figure skater Irina Rodnina, and touched off the flame that quickly leaped to the Olympic cauldron.

Others in the relay that preceded that pair's entrance included tennis star Maria Sharapova, a Sochi native; pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, who set 28 world records in that discipline; four-time gold medal-winning wrestler Alexander Karelin, and gymnast Alina Kabaeva.

Not surprisingly for a country with so dour a reputation, there was none of the whimsy that characterized the Opening Ceremony at the 2012 Olympic Summer Games in London.

However these 22d Winter Games play out, the setting for its kickoff was a spectacular one, framed by the snow-peaked mountains and the Black Sea, located just beyond the ultramodern stadium that will soon be home to a soccer team.

"This is such a beautiful place to have an Olympics," said American ski-jumper Jessica Jerome, "I've waited all my life to march in an opening ceremony, and this is just a perfect place for them."

It all concluded with a breathtaking display of fireworks that illuminated the nearby mountains and left the spectators in stunned silence.

Competition begins in earnest Saturday with men's 5,000-meter speedskating and several other events.


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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