SOCHI, Russia — Some may call it Putin’s party, but in Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony it was Russian culture that was center stage.
In a three-hour, fast-paced, high-tech show, Russia welcomed the world to the Russian Federation. And in less than three sentences, spoken in Russian, President Vladimir Putin officially opened the 2014 Winter Games.
“These are the first ever Olympic Games organized in the new Russia,” said IOC President Thomas Bach just before the torch was lit by Russian sports icons Irina Rodnina and Vladislav Tretyak. “We have come here with great respect for the rich and varied history of Russia and for the many people who have always been part of this country.”
The ceremony used a little girl named Lubov (which means love) to take the audience through the achievements and contributions of Russian scientists, artists and athletes. Those included in name or symbolically Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist who published the periodic table of elements in 1869; Alexander Pushkin, writer of fairy tales and poems; and Peter Tchaikovsky, composer of ballets like "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker."
In the opening sequence, Lubov grabbed the string of a kite and was whisked into the night sky amid snow and the diverse landscape of a country that is 6.6 million square miles and populated by more than 114 million people. Seven illuminated islands represented the seven regions of Russia from Ural Birch to Baikal.
Then five snowflakes turned into Olympic rings — although one malfunctioned, making it four rings and a snowflake. Putin was introduced, as was Bach, and then the performers ushered athletes to their seats, creating the Russian flag on the arena floor with LED-lined costumes.
The Parade of Nations was unique this time around, with the center of the ice dropping down to bring the athletes up to the main floor where they walked only half the distance they normally would do to their seats.
Among them were the U.S. women’s ski jumping team — a sport that will make its Olympic debut on Feb. 11. Two of the three team members led the battle, including a lawsuit, to have the sport included. Park City’s Sarah Hendrickson recovered from a knee injury to make the historic team, and she said it lived up to her expectations.
“Such an amazing feeling,” said the reigning world champion. “It really is emotional because everything in sport you have done leads up to this moment. It's everything I have dreamed of for the past five years and specifically the last six months.”
For the athletes, the opening ceremony is where they display their pride, regardless of their individual sport or team. It is the moment, for many, that what they have accomplished becomes real.
“The opening ceremony is the embodiment of everything Olympic,” U.S. mogul skier Hannah Kearney said. “To me, wearing the same uniform as every other American athlete and walking into a stadium designed to celebrate the Olympic spirit is the moment I first truly feel like an Olympian.”
While the music for the first two sections was classical, the athletes marched to DJ Rudenko’s sampling of famous Russian pop songs. As expected, the Russian delegation received the warmest welcome.
They were led by legendary bobsled pilot Alexander Zubkov, who is competing in his fifth Olympic Games. The Russian Federation also has the most athletes competing with 270 men and women vying for medals. The U.S. has 230 athletes competing. There were 97 delegations, including some warm-weather countries like the Cayman Islands and Jamaica. In the first modern Olympic Games, there were just 14 nations participating.
The next few sequences took visitors on a whirlwind journey through Russian culture with the highlight being the ballet section where Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” was recounted.
The Olympic mascots made an appearance, and spectators were treated to an impressive representation of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Fisht Arena was at its 40,000 capacity, and the show climaxed, as every opening ceremony does, when the Olympic flame arrived. It was tennis legend Maria Sharapova who carried the lit torch into Fisht Arena, and she handed it to two-time gold medalist in pole vault Elena Isinbaeva. It was given next to the wrestler Alexandr Karelin, who went 13 years without a loss until Utah’s Rulon Gardner beat him in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. It was the only silver medal Karelin won in international competition.
He passed the torch to Alina Kavaeva, a retired rhythmic gymnast, who gave it to the pair who would light the cauldron. Other celebrities included 10-time world champ and three-time Olympic gold medal figure skater Irina Rodnina and three-time Olympic gold medal hockey goalie for the former Soviet Union Vladislav Tretyak, who is famous to American hockey fans as he was pulled from the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” loss to the U.S. after allowing a goal with just a second on the clock. While Rodnina is one of the most successful gymnasts of all time, Tretyak is considered one of the greatest goalies of all time. He has coached in the NHL for 20 years.
The two ran the distance from the arena floor to the stylish cauldron where they held the torch together as the flame started at one end and moved up to the tip of the cauldron. There were temporary fences around the cauldron, and it was guarded by hundreds of police and security officers. But visitors could clearly see the massive structure and watch as the fountain next to it shot into the air in rhythm with the classical music.
The ceremony was a success for spectators who stayed long after the ceremony taking pictures and videos in Olympic Park, which was lit up like an amusement park.
And for the athletes, it was a beautiful moment to start what promises to be a very competitive, very eventful games with six new sports or disciplines.
U.S. bobsled push athlete (for USA-1) and three-time Olympian Curt Tomasevicz, Nebraska, said the best part was watching his new teammates soak it in.
"The third is just as sweet as the first,” he said. “The walk was my favorite part of course, and seeing the reaction of the first-timers."
Pilot of USA 2 (four-man) Nick Cunningham, who is part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, was experiencing it for the second time.
"I'm overwhelmed with joy and pride as I put on my second Olympic uniform,” Cunningham said. “So much sacrifice and effort went into this and I couldn't be happier."
Park City resident and first-time Olympian Devin Logan was impressed.
“Words can’t describe what I witnessed live with my own eyes,” said the slopestyle skier. “It was the coolest experience of my life.”
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