Yet in rejecting the old propaganda, Ernst’s extravaganza kicked off a Winter Games meant to serve a similar purpose. President Vladimir Putin coveted the Olympics as a means to fashion a new image of Russia for the world and to convince its people that it is still a vital, vibrant nation. Friday, he looked on stoically from the president’s box in Fisht Olympic Stadium as that vision began coming to life, before 40,000 spectators and a worldwide television audience of millions.
The ceremony could not completely escape the troubles that have shadowed these Winter Games, the first held in Russia. Early on, five illuminated snowflakes in the center of the stadium were supposed to morph into the Olympic Rings. Only four managed to do so, a painful reminder of the incomplete hotel rooms and other problems that have dominated the conversation leading up to the Games.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach made a nod to another hot-button issue in his opening remarks. Several lines were dedicated to rejecting discrimination, embracing tolerance and bringing people together, a longtime Olympic theme that seemed more pointed in a country sharply criticized for its treatment of gays.
But Bach also stood next to Putin and praised the “new Russia’’ for the speed with which it built Sochi into an Olympic host city. While much of the ceremony reflected Russia’s serious, reflective nature and respect for the past, the country’s leaders clearly hope these Olympics can peel back a layer of the onion dome to unveil a fresh look at this enigmatic nation.
“When we set out on this journey, we tried to open the doors to the future, to break down stereotypes to reveal a new Russia to the world,’’ said Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi Olympic organizing committee. “Today, this future is here.’’
One thing has not changed. Russia showed it still is a master of pomp and ceremony, putting on a show that mixed the avant-garde with the sternly traditional. A touch of winter — absent all week in this subtropical resort town — finally showed up, as a chilly breeze off the Black Sea swept through the coastal stadium.
The past seemed ever-present throughout the evening. Much of the show played out as a history pageant, complete with czars, Bolsheviks and Peter the Great. There were snippets of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, ballet and the Red Army Choir.
There also were Russian pop music, sports figures illuminated by LED lights and a little girl named Lubov — “love’’ in Russian — meant to symbolize the country’s march toward the future. The athletes emerged from an underground tunnel in the middle of the stadium onto the world’s biggest catwalk, modeling everything from Armani tracksuits (the Italians, naturally) to shorts (Bermuda and a handful of other nations not known for winter sports).
The American delegation, in the Ralph Lauren patriotic patchwork sweaters that have widely been viewed as a fashion don’t, did not include the women’s hockey team. The players, including five with Minnesota connections, voted to stay in their Olympic Village home and watch on TV so they could rest for Saturday’s 12 p.m. game against Finland.
Those who did attend shared their emotions in that most modern way, via social media. “Absolutely crazy,’’ tweeted curler Jared Zezel of Hibbing. “So thankful to have this experience,’’ tweeted speedskater Anna Ringsred of Duluth. And from freeskiier Keri Herman of Bloomington: “Hey Putin, can you turn down the AC in here? It’s getting a little chilly. Thanks.’’
The 225-member home team was greeted with riotous applause, something it hopes to hear over and over during the next two weeks. While there has been plenty of talk about the $51 billion spent to stage the most expensive Olympics in history, it was also revealed this week that Russia has spent $86 million per year on its sports programs since it was awarded the Games, along with another $374 million on sports facilities. There is enormous pressure on its athletes to do well.
They begin in earnest Saturday, when the first medals of the Sochi Games will be awarded in five sports. The lighting of the Olympic Cauldron was a reminder of past Winter Games glory, with former hockey player Vladislav Tretyak and former figure skater Irina Rodnina — who have six Olympic medals between them — setting the torch to the cauldron outside the stadium.
These Games now belong to the athletes, who will write much of their legacy over the next two weeks. “They have trained for years for a moment that will leave an indelible mark in history,’’ Chernyshenko said. With his country having done the same, the new Russia will be hoping for nothing less.