SOCHI, RUSSIA – It was designed to celebrate a millennium of Russian might and the country’s modern rebound, and kick off two weeks of extraordinary human endeavors and planetary sportsmanship. But the ceremony opening the Sochi Olympics on Friday, more than anything, was about one man: Vladimir Putin.
He charmed and strong-armed his way to hosting the games at a summer beach resort that he envisioned as a winter paradise. He stared down terrorist threats and worldwide wrath at a scarcely veiled campaign against gays. He has shrugged off critiques that construction of the most costly games in Olympic history was both shoddy and corrupt.
Ballet, man-made snow and avant-garde art all made an appearance at Sochi’s opening ceremonies, which couldn’t really compete with the cinematic splendor of the London Summer Games or the pyrotechnic extravaganza of Beijing 2008, but then again, the Winter Olympics are usually more low-key.
No matter. All Putin needed was an event that tells the world “Russia is back.”
It was a message meant for millions around the world who watched the show — and meant for his countrymen, too.
Russians will form the bulk of the spectators in Sochi, a people whose forebears endured centuries of oppression, a revolution that changed the world, a Soviet experiment that built rockets and nuclear missiles but struggled to feed its people. Russians who sometimes embrace Putin’s heavy hand because they fear uncertainty more than they crave freedom, and who, despite inhabiting the largest country in the world, feel insecure about their place in it.
They’re pinning especially high hopes on their athletes, once a force to be reckoned with and the pride of the nation. But they were an embarrassment at the Vancouver Games in 2010, with just three gold medals and a string of doping busts. This year, Russia has cleaned up its game and is presenting hundreds of skaters, skiers and other champions in the arenas on Sochi’s seashore and in the nearby Caucasus Mountains slopes of Krasnaya Polyana.
While the United States, Norway and Germany are seen as leading medal contenders, Russia will be pushing hard to bring home a bundle for the home crowd. Putin put on the pressure even as he tried to motivate them this week, advising: “We are all counting on you.”
If there was any doubt, it was erased on the first evening of competition as a booming crowd of Russian shouted “heroes” at world champion pairs Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov as they, along with men’s skater Evgeni Plushenko, pushed Russia into the early lead in the new competition of team figure skating. “It’s pressure, but this pressure helps us,” Volosozhar said. He added, “They push us very hard.”
It was a night on which competition and the athletes finally took a back seat to thoughts about terrorism, but they remain not far from anyone’s mind.
A few hundred kilometers away lies Chechnya, the site of two wars in the past two decades. And Dagestan, childhood home to the two brothers suspected in the Boston Marathon bombings and where militants regularly mount attacks. And Volgograd, where two suicide bombs killed 34 people in December.
A decade ago, extremists hid a bomb in a stadium in Chechnya during construction. Then when the Kremlin-backed Chechen president showed up for a ceremony, the bomb went off, killing him and several others.
Fear of terrorism clouded the run-up, fueled Putin’s strict security agenda and brought U.S. warships to the region. And about 40,000 Russian security forces are working to prevent an attack on the games, and they stand watch in all corners of Sochi and its Olympic Park on the sea and built from scratch mountain ski resort.
The world will be watching the entire Olympic machine in Sochi, and much as it did when Soviet-era Moscow hosted the 1980 Summer Olympics, it will use what it sees to sit in judgment of Putin’s Russia, where he has suffocated political opposition and ruled overtly or covertly for 15 years.
Is it a has-been superpower that can’t keep the electricity on during a hockey game? Or a driver of the 21st century global economy? A diplomatic middleweight with ties to despots that wields influence only via its veto at the United Nations? Or a fairy tale of prosperous resurrection from the communist collapse and its brutal aftermath?
Who continues to sit next to Putin on the VIP balcony may provide some clue. U.S. President Barack Obama and some other Western leaders are staying away, upset at a law that he championed barring homosexual “propaganda” aimed at minors that has been used to more widely discriminate against gays. But organizers say some 66 leaders — including heads of state and international organizations — are joining the games, including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The opening ceremonies glossed over these ugly bits as they handed over the games to the men and women who will spend the next two weeks challenging records and the limits of human ability. Some 3,000 athletes, a record for the Winter Olympics, have come for 98 events. More women will compete than ever before.
Legions of small business owners, political leaders and residents of this region are also hoping that Putin wins his gamble the games will turn Sochi into a year-round resort zone. Glitches with not quite ready hotels and a run of last-minute construction have seeded doubts.
The opening ceremony provided a moment of inspiration, with one of the greatest goaltenders of all time — Vladislav Tretiak — and an innovative figure skater who won three straight Olympic pairs titles. Irina Rodnina, lighting the cauldron together Friday night.
Rodnina is now a member of parliament for Putin’s United Russia party. They were handed the torch by Alina Kabayeva, a former Olympic champion gymnast who has been linked romantically with Putin, although the Kremlin has denied it.
It may be too much for Putin to hope that three hours of an opening ceremony has reshaped his global image, and that of his Russia. But in a country that embraces superlatives and spectacle and set a world standard for classical dance, they certainly put on a good show.