Russia kicks off Sochi Games with hope and hubris

United States’ Sage
Kotsenburg celebrates after winning the men’s snowboard slopestyle final at the Rosa Khutor Extreme
Park, at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. (AP Photo/Andy
Wong)

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!"
Yet no amount of cheering could drown out the real world.
Fears
of terrorism, which have dogged these games since Putin won them amid
controversy seven years ago, were stoked during the ceremony itself. 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 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.
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 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.
Putin himself was front
and center, declaring the games open 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 dusting of man-made snow — walked onto a
satellite image of the earth projected on the floor, the map shifting so
the athletes appeared to emerge from their own country.
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.
These games are particularly
important, as many Russians are still insecure about their place in the
world after the end of the Cold War and the years since that have seen
dominance of the United States and China.
International politics
were never far beneath the surface. One member of the VIP crowd carrying
the Olympic flag was Anastasia Popova, a young televison reporter with
the state-owned Rossiya TV channel, best known for her reporting in
Syria. Putin and Russian state media have stood strongly behind Syrian
President Bashar Assad, and Popova’s coverage laid the blame for the
Syrian civil war squarely on Syrian rebels.
But back to that Russian pride.
As
Churikova rallied the crowd to scream "louder than ever," she told the
fans in their cool blue seats their keepsakes from the night would last
1,000 years. When explaining the show would be hosted in English, French
and Russian, she joked that it didn’t matter, because in Sochi,
everyone "speaks every language in the world."
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."
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AP Sports Writers Stephen Wilson and Jon Krawczynski contributed to this report.
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Angela Charlton can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/acharlton
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