SOCHI, RUSSIA – A Russia seeking global vindication over its policies on terrorism, gay rights and despots kicked off the Sochi Olympics on Friday looking more like a Russia that parties — and that is just the way Russian President 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 slopes and in the freshly built 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 at the opening ceremony in Sochi, marching through Fisht Stadium singing that they are “not gonna get us!”
Superlatives abounded and the mood soared as Tchaikovsky met 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 the 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, and the suspected hijacker — who did not have a bomb — was subdued.
The show opened with an embarrassing hiccup as one of five snowflakes failed to unfurl into an Olympic ring, forcing organizers to jettison a fireworks display and disrupting one of the most symbolic moments in the opening ceremony. An old Soviet tradition of whitewashing problems resurfaced as state-run broadcaster Rossiya 1 substituted a shot from a rehearsal into its live broadcast.
Also missing from the show were Putin’s repression of dissent, the inconsistent security measures amid routine insurgent violence just a few hundred kilometers away, the poorly paid migrant workers who helped build the Sochi site from scratch, the disregard for local residents, the environmental abuse during construction and the huge amounts of Sochi construction money that disappeared due to corruption.
Some world leaders stayed away, but U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and dozens of others were in Sochi. Ban didn’t mention the anger over a Russian law that bans gay “propaganda” allegedly aimed at minors and is being used to discriminate against gays.But IOC President Thomas Bach won cheers for addressing the issue Friday, telling the crowd it is 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 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 post-Soviet 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 stars of the games — the athletes, dressed in winter wear of 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, with 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 climates, joined the Winter Olympians for the first time. Togo’s flag-bearer looked dumbstruck with wonder, but the veterans from the Cayman Islands had the style to arrive in shorts.
Curler Ayumi Ogasawara, who is making her third Olympic appearance after marrying and giving birth, led Japan’s procession as the flag-bearer. Japan was the second-to-last nation to enter the stadium in Cyrillic alphabetical order, followed by host Russia.
Delegation captain Noriaki Kasai, a ski jumper making his seventh Olympic appearance as the oldest member of the team at 41, 17-year-old ski-jumping gold medal favorite Sara Takanashi and 15-year-old snowboarder Ayumu Hirano featured among the Japanese athletes.
Japan’s Olympic delegation is its largest ever overseas, with 248 members, including 48 male and 65 female athletes — the first time ever that Japanese women have outnumbered the men at a Winter Games. The country has set the goal of surpassing its medal haul of 10, including five golds, achieved at the 1998 Nagano Games.
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 an 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. Although both girls are heterosexual, their involvement could be seen as a coded riposte to Western allegations that Russia is intolerant of homosexuality.
Russians place huge significance in the Olympics, and will be carefully watching the medal count — their dismal 15-medal performance in Vancouver four years ago is on the minds of many.
These games are particularly important because many Russians are still insecure about their place in the world since the end of the Cold War sapped their power and saw the rising 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 television reporter with the state-owned Rossiya TV channel, best known for her reporting on Syria’s civil war. Putin and Russian state media have stood strongly behind Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Popova’s coverage laid the blame for the war squarely on Syrian rebels.
For many older Russians, the ceremony may bring a pang of nostalgia for the 1980 Moscow Summer Games in the Soviet era, which are still remembered fondly, in particular for the cute mascot Misha the bear.