SOCHI, Russia — With a homage to Russian classics like Rachmaninoff, Bolshoi Ballet and Dostoyevsky, Sochi’s closing ceremony ended with the hope that the world better understands — and embraces — Russia.
“It is the great moment in our history, a moment to cherish and pass on to future generations,” said Dmitry Chernyshenko, president and CEO of the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee. “This is the new face of Russia. Our Russia.”
From individual volunteers to Russian government officials, the sentiment was expressed more than once that part of the purpose in hosting these games was the desire to show the world who they really are as a people.
“The games have turned our country, its culture and the people into something that is a lot closer and more appealing and understandable for the rest of the world,” said Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak the day before the closing ceremony.
He said extinguishing the flame would be a sad moment for the entire country.
“But I am sure that all of us will preserve the memory of it in our hearts; the friendly faces, the warm Sochi sun and the glare of the Olympic gold have broken the ice of skepticism towards the new Russia. The games have turned our country, its culture and the people into something that is a lot closer and more appealing and understandable for the rest of the world.”
That was certainly the sentiment expressed throughout the games from the exuberant volunteers to the officials who continually tried to avoid discussing issues from human rights to stray dogs. They sang the praises of the athletes, and for Russia —a country that doesn’t embrace sports fandom the way Americans do — they had plenty of reasons to celebrate.
On the final day of the games, the host country swept the men’s 50 kilometer cross-country race and won gold in four-man bobsled. It won the most medals (33) and the most golds (13). The U.S. finished second with 28 overall medals, but was fourth in gold medals with just nine.
Still, anyone in any official capacity did nothing but offer praise to both the host city and the participants of the games.
“You volunteers, with your warm smiles, made the sun shine for us every day,” said IOC President Thomas Bach. “Your wonderful engagement will create the legacy of a strong civil society in Russia. Through you everybody with an open mind could see the face of the new Russia — efficient and friendly, patriotic and open to the world.”
The games were meant to change hearts and minds about who Russians are, and to some degree that occurred. But there was a distinct lack of international representation among fans, with many athletes saying their families either couldn’t afford to make the trip or were afraid of threats from terrorists.
As it turned out, security was inconspicuous but effective. Transportation, by all accounts, went smoothly with no major problems reported.
The games started under a cloud of ridicule when journalists arrived to find some accommodations either lacking or still under construction. Organizers said those reports were exaggerated, and eventually the problems were either remedied or accepted and the conversation shifted to the competition.
Throughout the games there were issues of how protesters were dealt with — some denouncing environmental disregard in building the infrastructure for the Olympic venues, while others protested Russia’s new anti-gay propaganda law and lack of human rights for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
But maybe most problematic for Russian and Olympic officials was the furor over Sochi’s stray dogs. At first there was concern because the dogs wandered freely, sometimes even in and out of buildings. But that quickly shifted to concern for the welfare of the animals as there were reports that dogs were being rounded up and euthanized.
Two snowboarders and at least two U.S. hockey players ended up adopting stray dogs, some of whom were struggling with disease. The issue became a sore point with officials, and when one reporter tried to ask a lighthearted question about the number of Russian dogs being taken by athletes to Utah, Patrick Sandusky, chief communications officer for the USOC, was visibly irritated.
He said those who were concerned should “visit their local Humane Society in the U.S. where there are lots of dogs to adopt.”
Sandusky also basically refused to answer another softball question about whether he’d return to Sochi for vacation, saying curtly that they were going to return for the Paralympic Games.
While most athletes expressed nothing but delight with their experience in Sochi, there were problems. It seems to be a regular issue at the Olympics, but the Korean team filed a formal complaint with the International Skating Union over judging issues.
Meanwhile, a lack of podium finishes for U.S. speedskating devolved into finger-pointing and constantly changing theories as to how one of the world’s best teams failed to even get near a podium until the short-track men’s team won silver in the 5,000-meter relay.
But the U.S. enjoyed its most successful Winter Olympics outside North America, and young, new stars took center stage, which officials believe builds excitement for the games among younger generations.
The final issue was Sweden’s protest of the IOC’s decision to ban Nicklas Backstrom from the gold medal hockey game against Canada for testing positive for Pseudoephedrine, which he took in the form of allergy medication.
“Our opinion is that the IOC has destroyed one of the greatest hockey days in Swedish history,” said Tommy Boustedt, general manager of the team. He said the damage extended far beyond the games and into his country. “They destroyed this hockey day for all Swedish fans and for lots of fans all over the world.”
But for the most part, IOC and Russian officials were correct when they praised athletes and fans for friendly behavior, fair competition and thrilling performances. Maybe the biggest hit of the games were the newly added sports, most of which the U.S — and Utah athletes specifically — dominated.
Fans loved them, and that venue was one of the most packed throughout the games.
“Ninety-eight sets of medals were won in honest and dazzling competition,” Chernyshenko said. “Your victories inspired people all over the world.”
The closing ceremony featured the best of Russia’s rich music history, with one of the most impressive sections featuring pianist Denis Matsuev playing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concert No. 2. Within minutes, 62 other pianos swirled around him. The journey also featured two of Russia’s renowned ballet companies — Bolshoi and Mariinsky, and then paid tribute to the country’s best writers, some of which were Brodsky, Bulgakov, Chekov, Pushkin, Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy.
It was an entertaining, quick-paced journey that also included a beautiful hand-off to PyeongChang, Korea, host of the 2018 Winter Games. Then came the speeches and the send-off starting with Chernyshenko and ending with Bach.
“We arrived with great respect for the rich and varied history of Russia,” Bach said. “We leave as friends of the Russian people.”
The mascots joined 3,000 children holding Mimosa branches, and then Tchaikovsky played while a massive 15-minute fireworks show began. Classical music gave way to DJ Kto, who played mixes of modern music while fans filed out of the stadium to an illuminated sky and an extinguished flame.
“Thanks to the games, it was for the first time since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Russian athletes have a training base for all winter disciplines and sports and the Olympic venues here in Sochi,” said Kozak of the most expensive Winter Games in history. “Today, Russia celebrates its athletes at our home-grown Olympic Games.”
And Bach hopes that even those far from the fields of play found reason to be inspired by what happened in the city by the Black Sea.
“By living together under one roof in the Olympic Village you send a powerful message from Sochi to the world,” he said. “The message of a society of peace, tolerance and respect. I appeal to everybody implicated in confrontation, oppression or violence, act on this Olympic message of dialogue and peace. There is no higher compliment than to say on behalf of all of participants these were the athletes’ games.”
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