SOCHI, Russia — A crowning achievement of Vladimir Putin’s Russia kicked off Friday with a celebration of its past greatness and hopes for future glory, most especially for a raucous group of Russian athletes who marched into the rollicking opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics with a message.
To the best athletes in the world, who they’ve invited to the edge of the Black Sea to compete on ice and snow, they sang: you’re “not gonna get us.”
Just after the sun set over the Caucasus Mountains and along the seashore just outside Fisht Stadium in the wet-paint-fresh Olympic Park, Russian TV star Yana Churikova shouted to a crowd still taking their seats: “Welcome to the center of the universe!”
For the next two weeks, it certainly is for the 3,000 athletes who will compete in 98 events, more people and contests than ever at the Winter Games.
It will be, too, for all those worried the games will be a target for terrorism, fears of which were stoked during the ceremony itself when 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 opening ceremony and subsequent games are Russia’s chance to tell its story of post-Soviet resurrection to the world, and dispel the anger, fear and suspicion that has marred the buildup to these most expensive Olympics ever.
The ceremony was a celebration of Russia and presented Putin’s version: 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 was front and center, looking down from his box high above the stadium floor 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 man-made snow — walked onto a satellite image of the earth projected on the floor, the map shifting so the athletes emerged from their own country.
Every athlete who makes it to Sochi is honored with the title Olympian, but who might be deemed the games’ stars at the closing ceremony?
Well, American snowboarder Shaun White is certain to wow crowds in the Krasnaya Polyana resort halfpipe. On the ice, Canadian hockey players Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews will try to add another gold medal to their collection of Stanley Cups. In the rink, American’s Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold will try to dethrone South Korean marvel and defending goal medalist Yuna Kim.
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 for Russians, many of whom 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.
Perhaps cuing on those feelings, it didn’t take long for the classic Russian pride to come shining through at the opening ceremony.
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 official ceremony opened with the Russian alphabet projected on the stadium floor, as a young girl told the story of her country’s heroes and their globally renowned achievements: composer Tchaikovsky; artists Kandinsky, Chagall and Malevich; writers Tolstoy, Pushkin and Chekhov; Mendeleev and his periodic table; the first spaceship Sputnik and Russia’s space stations.
There was a glitch, too, as the lighting of the five Olympic Rings overshadowed the singing of the Russian national anthem. Five stars on cables drifted together above the stadium, and four of them turned into Olympic rings — but the fifth never unfurled and they all failed to erupt into white flames as planned, marring what’s traditionally a key moment in the ceremony.
In a nod to Russia’s long history, the anthem was sung by the 600-year-old Sretensky Monastery Choir, a symbol of an increasing rapprochement between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church. The monastery is led by Tikhon Shevkunov, who is known to be Putin’s confessor and one of the nation’s most influential clergymen.
Not in the show Friday: Putin’s repression of dissent, fears of terrorism and inconsistent security measures at the Olympics, which will take place just a few hundred miles (kilometers) away from the sites of an insurgency and routine militant violence. Also looked over: the tensions with the United States over neighboring Ukraine, NSA leaker Edward Snowden and Syria.
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.
The show cleared its first chance to focus on one of those issues without so much as a wink, as Tatu performed and steered clear of the very real anger over a Russian law banning gay “propaganda” aimed at minors that is being used to discriminate against gays.
The women in Tatu put on a lesbian act that is largely seen as an attention-getting gimmick, but on this night, they merely held hands, stopping short of the groping and kissing of their past performances. At MTV awards in 2003, the duo performed with dozens of young women dressed in tightfitting schoolgirl uniforms that they stripped off in the end.
This time, their lead-in act was the Red Army Choir MVD singing Daft Punk’s Grammy-winning “Get Lucky.”
While some world leaders stayed away, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was in Sochi. Ban has spoken out about the anti-gay law, but did not refer to it at the opening ceremony.
Asked whether Putin might arrive at the ceremony from the air, like stunt actors playing James Bond and Queen Elizabeth II did at in London, the ceremony’s director, Konstantin Ernst, said “it’s hardly worth hoping for that.”
But with the Russian president safely in his box alongside IOC President Thomas Bach, who will carry the Olympic torch to light the cauldron for the games, after the flame’s unprecedented journey to the North Pole, the cosmos, Europe’s highest mountain peak and beyond?
“It’s the biggest secret ever,” ceremony director Konstantin Ernst said, with a smile.
AP Sports Writers Stephen Wilson and Jon Krawczynski contributed to this report.
Angela Charlton can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/acharlton