SOCHI, Russia (AP) — A Russia in search of global vindication kicked off the Sochi Olympics looking more like a Russia that likes to party, with a pulse-raising opening ceremony about fun and sports instead of terrorism, coddling despots and gay rights.
And that’s just the way Vladimir Putin wants these Winter Games to be.
The world’s premier athletes on ice and snow have more to worry about than geopolitics as they plunge into the biggest challenges of their lives on the mountain slopes of the Caucasus and in the wet-paint-fresh arenas on the shores of the Black Sea.
But watch out for those Russians on their home turf. A raucous group of Russian athletes had a message for their nearly 3,000 rivals in Sochi, marching through Fisht Stadium singing that they’re “not gonna get us!”
Superlatives abounded and the mood soared as Tchaikovsky met pseudo-lesbian pop duo Tatu. Russian TV presenter Yana Churikova shouted: “Welcome to the center of the universe!”
The show opened with an embarrassing hiccup, as one of five snowflakes failed to unfurl as planned into the Olympic rings, forcing organizers to jettison a fireworks display and disrupting one of the most symbolic moments in an opening ceremony.
Also missing from the show: Putin’s repression of dissent, and inconsistent security measures at the Olympics, which will take place just a few hundred miles (kilometers) away from the sites of a long-running insurgency and routine militant violence.
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 presented Putin’s version of today’s Russia: 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.
As always, Greece — the birthplace of Olympic competition — came first in the parade of nations. Five new teams, all from warm weather climates, joined the Winter Olympics for the first time. Togo’s flagbearer looked dumbstruck with wonder, but those veterans from the Cayman Islands had the style to arrive in shorts!
The smallest teams often earned the biggest cheers from the crowd of 40,000, with an enthusiastic three-person Venezuelan team winning roars of approval as flag bearer and alpine skier Antonio Pardo danced and jumped along to the electronic music.
Only neighboring Ukraine, scene of a tense and ongoing standoff between a pro-Russian president and Western-leaning protesters, could compete with those cheers.
That is, until the Russians arrived.
Walking in last to a thundering bass line that struggled to overcome the ovations from the hometown crowd, the Russians reveled in all the attention. Their feeling could perhaps best be summed up by Russian singers Tatu, whose hit “Not Gonna Get Us” accompanied them to their seats.
Russians place huge significance in the Olympics, carefully watching the medal count — their dismal performance in Vancouver four years ago is on the minds of many.
The moment of high pride came at the end, when Russian hockey great Vladislav Tretiak and three-time gold medalist Irina Rodnina joined hands to light the Olympic cauldron. He’s often called the greatest goaltender of all time by those who saw him play, she won 10 world pairs figure skating titles in a row.
That was how it ended. At the top, the show — and the games — easily avoided talking about prickly issues even when the women in Tatu took the stage. The duo, who put on a lesbian act that is largely seen as an attention-getting gimmick, merely held hands during their performance on this night, stopping short of the groping and kissing of their past performances.
This time? Their lead-in act was the Red Army Choir MVD singing Daft Punk’s Grammy-winning “Get Lucky.”