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, 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 centre 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.
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.”
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 kilometres 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.
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 centre, declaring the Games open from his box high above the stadium floor.
Canada entered midway through the march. Women’s hockey star Hayley Wickenheiser carried the Maple Leaf to lead representatives from Canada’s 220-athlete team. It’s Canada’s biggest team ever assembled for a Winter Games.
“To represent the best of Canada is such an honour, it’s chilling,” Wickenheiser said. “There is so much excitement.”
Canada looked sharp in outfits designed by Hudson’s Bay, featuring a red coat with toggle style buttons and a black stripe adorning the hip line.
The women in the Canadian contingent wore black mock turtlenecks and wool V-neck sweaters, while the men sported a tailored white dress shirt, wool cardigan and red and white striped ties. Black bottoms rounded out the ensembles
“I wish our Olympians the best of luck as they take on the world in Sochi,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper posted on his Twitter account.
Canada’s target is to finish first overall in the medal count after finishing third with 26 medals at home in 2010.
Not all of Canada’s athletes marched into Fisht Olympic Stadium. The men’s hockey team hasn’t arrived yet, figure skaters are in the middle of the team competition and skiers and sliders are staying too far away from the host city.
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 neighbouring 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.