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Russia kicks off Sochi Games with hope and hubris

By Angela Charlton

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 7 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

The Olympic flame is lit during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014.

Bernat Armangue, Associated Press

SOCHI, Russia — A crowning achievement of Vladimir Putin's Russia kicked off Friday with a celebration of its past greatness and hopes for future glory, most especially for a raucous group of Russian athletes who marched into the rollicking opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics with a message.

To the best athletes in the world, who they've invited to the edge of the Black Sea to compete on ice and snow, amid concerns about terrorism and criticism of intolerance of gay people, they sang: you're "not gonna get us."

Just after the sun set over the Caucasus Mountains and along the seashore just outside Fisht Stadium in the wet-paint-fresh Olympic Park, Russian TV star Yana Churikova shouted to a crowd still taking their seats: "Welcome to the center of the universe!"

For the next two weeks, it certainly is for the 3,000 athletes who will compete in 98 events, more people and contests than ever at the Winter Games.

It will be, too, for all those worried the games will be a target for terrorism, fears of which were stoked during the ceremony itself when 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 a hiccup, as the lighting of the five Olympic Rings overshadowed the singing of the Russian national anthem. Five snowflakes on cables drifted together above the stadium, and four of them turned into Olympic rings — but the fifth never unfurled and they all failed to erupt into white flames as planned.

Also missing from the show: Putin's repression of dissent, those worries of terrorism and inconsistent security measures at the Olympics, which will take place just a few hundred miles (kilometers) away from the sites of an insurgency and routine militant violence. Also looked over: the tensions with the United States over neighboring Ukraine, NSA leaker Edward Snowden and Syria.

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 was a celebration of Russia and presented Putin's version: 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 was front and center, accepting the invitation from Bach to open the games 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 man-made snow — walked onto a satellite image of the earth projected on the floor, the map shifting so the athletes emerged from their own country.

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