Music, dance and plenty of Russian bravado unleashed the ultimate achievement of Vladimir Putin's Russia on Friday _ a Winter Olympics to showcase the best athletes on ice and snow that the world has to offer.
The opening ceremony on the edge of the Black Sea 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 opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics is under way on Friday. (Yonhap)|
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.
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.
But every athlete who makes it to Sochi is honored with the title Olympian, and a satellite image of the earth was projected on the floor of Fisht Stadium as they entered during the parade of nations, the map shifting so the athletes emerged from their own country. The athletes from the Cayman Islands even arrived in shorts!
|Fire works celebrate the opening ceremony of Sochi Olympics on Friday. (Yonhap)|
After Greece, traditionally first as the birthplace nation of Olympic competition, the teams marching into the stadium in Russian alphabetical order, putting the U.S. between Slovenia and Tajkistan.
The ceremony was crafted as a celebration of Russia and is presenting 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.
And it didn't take long for that classic Russian pride in their nation to come shining through.
As Churikova rallied the crowd to scream ``louder than ever,'' she told the 40,000 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 on the set list 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.
|Russia's President Vladimir Putin (C-R) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach (C-L) wave during the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics at the Fisht Olympic Stadium on Friday. (AFP-Yonhap)|
And the unpaid 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 Russian singers Tatu performed "Not Gonna Get Us'' _ steering clear of the very real anger over a Russian law banning gay "propaganda'' aimed at minors that is being used to discriminate against gays. (AP)