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, coddling despots and gay rights.
And that’s just the way Vladimir Putin wants these Winter Games to be.
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 shores of the Black Sea.
But watch out for those Russians on their home turf. A raucous group of Russian athletes had a message for their nearly 3,000 rivals in Sochi, marching through Fisht Stadium singing that they’re “not gonna get us!”
Superlatives abounded and the mood soared as Tchaikovsky met pseudo-lesbian pop duo Tatu. 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. Authorities said the plane landed safely in Turkey.
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.
Also missing from 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 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 Friday, 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. 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 – those athletes, dressed in winter wear of so many national colors to ward off the evening chill and a light dusting of man-made snow – walked onto a satellite image of the earth projected on the floor, the map shifting 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 Olympics 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 flag bearer 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 a thundering bass line that struggled to overcome the ovations from the hometown crowd, the Russians reveled in all the attention. Their feeling could perhaps best be summed up by Russian singers Tatu, whose hit “Not Gonna Get Us” accompanied them to their seats.
Russians place huge significance in the Olympics, carefully watching the medal count – their dismal performance in Vancouver four years ago is on the minds of many.
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 seen dominance of the United States and China.
International politics were never far beneath the surface. One member of the VIP crowd carrying the Olympic flag was Anastasia Popova, a young televison reporter with the state-owned Rossiya TV channel, best known for her reporting in Syria. Putin and Russian state media have stood strongly behind Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Popova’s coverage laid the blame for the Syrian civil war squarely on Syrian rebels.
But back to that Russian pride.
As Churikova rallied the crowd to scream “louder than ever,” she told the 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 moment of high pride came at the end, when 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 in a row.
That was how it ended. At the top, the show – and the games – easily 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, merely held hands during their performance on this night, stopping short of the groping and kissing of their past performances.
This time? Their lead-in act was the Red Army Choir MVD singing Daft Punk’s Grammy-winning “Get Lucky.”