Sochi rings in Olympics with Russian style

Ceremony overcomes early mistake



SOCHI, Russia -- For those looking to seize on every gaffe of Russian President Vladimir Putin's Olympics, there it was, just minutes into the opening ceremony, which claimed to be the "most complex and ambitious technical show ever attempted in Olympic history."

In one of the first acts of "Dreams of Russia," fake snow fell from the rafters of the Fisht Olympic Stadium, turning the 40,000-seat marvel into a futuristic snow globe. Five large snowflakes were lit up and hanging high in the air. The plan called for the snowflakes to suddenly turn into the Olympic rings and interlock. But, when the moment came, the top right flake did not morph, leaving the audience with four interlocked rings and one highly ridiculed piece of electronic precipitation.

What has $51 billion bought Mr. Putin?

More scrutiny than any leader of a country that has been the host of an Olympics. Of course, when Adolf Hitler's Germany had the 1936 Berlin Games, there was no television, much less hundreds of journalists armed with cheeky Twitter accounts.

So, the snowflake didn't turn into a ring. Did that signal that, right then and there, these Sochi Winter Games were going to be just one huge waste of Russian public funds? Or did it simply mean the snowflake didn't turn into a ring as it had during all of the practice runs leading up to the big occasion? The rest of the show would ultimately decide the spin.

And by the end of the night, when a fireworks display that would have made Pittsburghers blush soared into the coastal air to announce the beginning of these Games to the most nearsighted astronauts in space, even the staunchest critics of Mr. Putin couldn't deny that his country's artistic flair had shown well on the grandest stage.

That is especially when one considers this was not an easy job, trying to present Russia's complicated history to a skeptical world using music, dance and some of the most elaborate technology assembled for one performance. All told, this could have been so much worse than a bum snowflake.

But the show was magical and awe-inspiring, as hundreds of ballet dancers delivered their rendering of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" that then made way for an unapologetic ode to the October Revolution of 1917 and the industrial period of the Soviet Union, which included a massive hammer and sickle floating in the stadium.

The pride of this new Russian Federation was everywhere on display, never more so than when the country's winter Olympians marched around the stadium floor to the boom, boom, boom of ground-shaking techno bass. The natives clapped in unison as Mr. Putin looked on from his booth, and it should have come as no surprise that during that stirring interlude came an alarming bit of breaking news on Twitter.

Details were fuzzy, but it was being reported that a man had made a bomb threat on an airplane headed to Istanbul and demanded the flight be rerouted to Sochi. Those paying attention were confronted with the nightmare scenario for all the visitors to this Black Sea resort region, that maybe Sochi truly is a major terrorist target, that maybe the International Olympic Committee had made a huge mistake in bringing the Games here at this volatile juncture in the history of the North Caucasus.

But, whatever this threat was, the Turkish authorities had smothered it. The man was reported to be in custody.

And soon, there would be a giant bear on ice skates, a giant rabbit on skis and a giant cat on a snowboard -- the three mascots of these Olympics oddly making one feel like a kid again -- in the middle of the stadium.

At their best, that is what the Games can accomplish. They can temporarily suspend the petty prejudices of adults, even in Russia, where, by law, people are not allowed to protest for the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Before the opening ceremony began, it was as if the organizers of the preshow entertainment were trying to send a subtle message about the true hearts of the Russian people. They asked everyone to hug their neighbor and played Queen's "We Are the Champions," once sung by the band's gay lead singer, Freddie Mercury. Next, the men of the Russian Police Choir were on stage singing Daft Punk's "Get Lucky."

Later, as the night wrapped up with speeches from officials, IOC president Thomas Bach made it clear what he felt the Olympics should be, and one couldn't help but sense he was talking directly to Mr. Putin as he talked of "living together without discrimination."

Minutes later, Mr. Putin had his chance to rebut. But instead, he simply did what he was supposed to do, stating that the Sochi Games had officially begun.

Keep up with J. Brady McCollough in Sochi on his "Russia Best" blog on post-gazette.com.


J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published February 7, 2014 11:53 PM

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