Russia takes a victory lap at Winter Olympics, earns praise for delivering 'all it had promised'

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SOCHI, Russia -- Russia concluded the 2014 Winter Olympics with a lavish, theatrical victory lap Sunday night celebrating not only successfully hosting the games, but also showcasing a Russia transformed from the grainy black-and-white images of the old Soviet Union.

"Russia delivered on its promise," Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee said to thunderous applause inside Fisht Stadium. "This is the new face of Russia, our Russia."

Then, borrowing the line from the late International Olympic Committee president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, Mr. Chernyshenko added: "And for us these are the best games ever."

IOC president Thomas Bach, presiding over his first Olympics, broke with tradition and refrained from rating the Sochi games. Instead, he noted that Russia "promised excellent sports venues, outstanding Olympic villages and an impeccable organization."

"Tonight we can say: Russia delivered all what it had promised," he said.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin looking on, Sunday's two hour-plus extravaganza was a celebration for accomplishing what many critics thought couldn't be done: successfully hosting a Winter Games amid political, security, and weather concerns in subtropical Sochi.

The 40,000 who packed Fisht Stadium were transfixed by the lavish spectacle of chief creative director Konstantin Ernst's show, which included nods to Bolshoi and Mariinsky's ballet, Rachmaninoff's piano, and the works of Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn and other Russian authors.

Faded to black, at least for a night, was the bad publicity surrounding the games' record $50 billion cost, the alleged corruption that bloated it, unfinished and or substandard lodging facilities, the culling of stray dogs, Russia's anti-gay laws, and the reported heavy-handed treatment by authorities of the few who dared to protest.

Not that the Russian organizers didn't acknowledge some shortcomings. In the closing ceremony's opening number, a horde of silver-clad dancers formed four Olympic rings before a separate group of dancers slowly positioned themselves into the shape of the fifth ring.

The routine paid humorous homage to the opening ceremony's technical faux pax in which one of five giant Olympic rings failed to illuminate -- a scene that was edited on Russian television to look as though all five rings were lit.

Afterward, the athletes who participated in the games took one more curtain call, marching (some dancing) jubilantly as pop and techno music blared over the stadium's sound system.

All the while, Mr. Putin sat in a box in the chilly stadium and occasionally flashed a slight smile -- a visage that became the face of the games.

"He was visible throughout the games, he spent time with the [IOC] executive board and he spent half an hour at USA House," U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Larry Probst said. "He has really owned the games, and I would compliment him and his team."

Russia's athletes did their part. After winning just 15 medals in Vancouver in 2010, the Russians finished with 33, best at the Winter Games. Team USA, which had 37 medals in Vancouver, was second in Sochi with 28.

Mr. Probst's remarks were echoed by other U.S. officials who were part of the country's official delegation to the closing ceremonies.

"We want to congratulate all Russians for the success of these Olympics," said William Burns, deputy secretary of state.

Mr. Burns was accompanied by Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, gold medal speed skaters Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair, and tennis legend Billie Jean King, who is gay.

President Barack Obama originally named Ms. King to a low-level delegation for the opening ceremony, a contingent that included Olympic gold medalist figure skater Brian Boitano and hockey player Caitlin Cahow, who are gay.

Ms. King missed the opening ceremony because of the death of her mother. But her presence in Sochi, along with Mr. Boitano's and Ms. Cahow's two weeks ago, was the White House's way to register opposition to a so-called "anti-propaganda" law that Mr. Putin signed last June.

The law prohibits individuals from promoting "homosexual behavior" and spreading "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" among minors.

Mr. Obama and several other world leaders view the measure as an anti-gay law and skipped the Winter Games' opening and closing ceremonies.

"There was a lot of focus on the anti-gay law before we got here, but it was a nonfactor," said Julie Chu, a U.S. hockey player who carried the U.S. flag in the closing ceremony. "Everyone has been respected."

Not everyone. Russian had to quell a media firestorm after Russian Cossacks -- who were part of the security force protecting the games -- horsewhipped and pepper-sprayed members of the Russian anti-Putin punk band Pussy Riot in Sochi last week.

Still, the incident did little to dampen the mood of Sunday's party atmosphere.

First Published February 23, 2014 11:40 PM

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