SOCHI, Russia – A balletic, artistic and, at times, seat-shaking celebration in a ceremony designed to reintroduce Russia to the world kicked off the Sochi Olympics on Friday.
President Vladimir Putin, in a black winter coat in near-freezing temperatures, opened the XXII Olympic Winter Games one night after competition began in the Black Sea resort.
The night’s climax, after 2 hours, 40 minutes, was the end of the longest torch relay in Winter Olympics history.
Olympic champions hockey goalie Vladislav Tretiak and figure skater Irina Rodnina jointly lit the flame, a nod to two Winter Olympic sports that the Soviet Union and Russia have long excelled at.
The night also included an early glitch.
Five stars drifted in the air above the middle of the stadium floor with the intention of turning into the Olympic rings. Four stars unfurled, but the fifth did not.
The rest of the program went smoothly inside Fisht Stadium, whose open ends tunneled in near-freezing temperatures all night.
The torch relay finished with six famous Russian Olympians meeting on the stadium floor. Two of them ventured outside the stadium.
Grand Slam tennis champion Maria Sharapova carried the Olympic flame in the stadium from below the middle of the floor. She bravely jogged without a hat or gloves in about 35 degrees.
Sharapova handed her torch to pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva. They ran together to Greco-Roman wrestler Aleksandr Karelin.
The trio made it to rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva. Finally, the three-time Olympic champion figure skater Rodnina, 64, took it and, after a short introduction, handed it to the three-time medalist Tretiak, 61.
Tretiak carried the flame with Rodnina by his side out of one of Fisht Stadium’s open end zones, past lines of people, including volunteers, and toward the Olympic cauldron in the distance.
They jogged for about 2 minutes before reaching the cauldron, the duo a contrast in sizes. They jointly lit a mini torch, which sparked a flame running up to the top of the cauldron in a couple seconds.
Most spectators inside the stadium could not see Tretiak and Rodnina. They watched on screens and listened to fast-paced instrumental music.
Earlier, Putin cracked a small smile as he voiced a short, scripted sentence read by a head of state at every Olympics. He declared the Games open. Fireworks followed outside the stadium.
That came after the customary Parade of Nations, with a Winter Olympic record 88 delegations. It included Bermuda in its customary shorts, the Cayman Islands in shorts and flip flops and female escorts whose outfits featured transparent tubes around their chests.
In a first, athletes marched from underneath the middle of the stadium floor rather than a side entrance. The order began with Greece and ended with the host nation, as both are tradition, with the other 86 groups filing in Russian alphabetical order.
The U.S. was greeted warmly, with applause, but not as many cheers as Italy or Ukraine. The U.S. Olympic Team of 230 marks the largest in Winter Games history, though many did not march to stay rested for competition this weekend.
Russia came last and left the biggest impression.
Techno pop music shifted to seat-shaking hip-hop beats for their march. Bach and Putin stood high above in the crowd and slow-clapped side-by-side.
The parade took all of about 45 minutes and began about 20 minutes into the festivities, earlier than usual. Organizers wanted the Olympians to be able to enjoy most of the artistic show.
Olympic officials later gave speeches – Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee president Dmitry Chernyshenko, followed by Bach, speaking a mix of Russian and the Olympic languages of English and French.
Bach promoted diversity in the Olympic movement and thanked thousands for their work under “sometimes difficult circumstances.”
Many venues were not completed until recently, and signs of unfinished business are prevalent in the coastal and mountain clusters.
The Olympics could be held “with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason,” said the German Bach, presiding over his first Olympics after succeeding Dr. Jacques Rogge in September.
Bach’s words were met by speech-stopping applause after every sentence or two.
Chernyshenko, a 45-year-old advertising and sports marketing professional, explained the Sochi 2014 motto, “Hot. Cool. Yours.”
“Our Games will be hot, not only because of palm trees outside the ice arena but also with the heat of our hearts,” Chernyshenko said. “Our Games will be cool with new modern venues, new heroes, new icons. And our Games will be yours, all of yours, because when they come together, in all our diversity, the Olympic Games have united us.”
The artistic portion, dubbed “Dreams of Russia,” was promoted as “the most complex and ambitious technical show ever attempted in Olympic history” by organizers.
A child led them.
Lubov, a girl whose name translates to “love,” guided some 40,000 spectators through thousands of years, 6.6 million square miles and nine time zones.
Opening Ceremony director Konstantin Ernst wrote in a letter that he aimed to reintroduce Russia to the world.
“I wanted to break the stereotype of our country,” wrote Ernst, who has produced more than a dozen films. “What is Russia for an average person of this world? It is cavier and matreshka-dolls, balalaika or ushanka-hats, or even just a bear. … I wanted to present the history of Russia as seen through the eyes of a little girl, who represents the feminine soul of Russia.”
“Dreams of Russia” took inspiration from previous Opening Ceremonies.
Lubov herself conjured memories of Sydney 2000, when Australian Nikki Webster, 13, flew above Stadium Australia. Lubov, too, rose into the air while flying a kite.
The floor of the stadium displayed imagery throughout, much like the unprecedented Beijing 2008 Opening Ceremony. Most notably, projections showed Earth from above at night with each country illuminated as it marched in.
Giant pillars rose from the floor as well, similar to Vancouver 2010, whose indoor cauldron was created by pillars crossing over each other.
And then there were floating symbols of Russian history that eased across the middle of the stadium parallel to the upper deck.
They included a troika, a giant hammer and sickle entering from opposite sides and a train representing the Russian revolution. Classic Russian music accompanied the whip through time amid thumping drumbeats. Cannons and shots firing were sprinkled in.
St. Basil’s Cathedral, the ballet “Swan Lake” and the novel “War and Peace” were among the referenced historic landmarks. Fake snow fell intermittently.
The show of history was made possible due to the modern design of Fisht Stadium, which was built for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and will be prepared for the 2018 World Cup after the Olympics.
If you were to think of Fisht as a football stadium, it essentially has open end zones.
It will not be used for competition over the next 16 days, when a record 98 events will be contested by some 3,000 athletes, but the focus will return to Fisht for the Closing Ceremony on Feb. 23.