SOCHI, RUSSIA: 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, gay rights and coddling despots.
And that’s just the way Russian President 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 and their hit, Not Gonna Get Us. 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.
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.
That allowed for an old Soviet tradition of whitewashing problems to resurface, as state-run broadcaster Rossiya 1 substituted a shot from a rehearsal with the rings unfolding successfully into their live broadcast.
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 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.”
Russian police on Friday arrested several gay rights activists protesting in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
In Moscow, police detained 10 gay rights activists who waved rainbow flags on Red Square, according to Russian news reports. Moscow police refused to comment.
In St. Petersburg, four activists were detained Friday after unfurling a banner quoting the Olympic Charter’s ban on any form of discrimination. The protesters, who gathered on St. Petersburg’s Vasilyevsky Island, were quickly rounded up by police, according to Natalia Tsymbalova, a local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activist.
Police there also refused any immediate comment.
For all the criticism, there was no shortage of pride at the ceremony in what Russia has achieved with these games, after building up an Olympic Park out of swampland. 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 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.”
Viewers of the Olympic ceremony romped through the wonders of Russian cultural and scientific achievements — from Kazimir Malevich’s avant-garde paintings to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, from Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements to the string of Soviet “firsts” in space.
Capping it all off, 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.