Sochi lit up Thursday with music and dance to unleash the ultimate achievement of Vladimir Putin’s Russia: 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.
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 pre-show crowd still taking their seats: ‘Welcome to the center of the universe!’
Soon to come are the athletes, in the traditional parade of nations that marks every opening ceremony. Some 3,000 will compete in 98 events, more people and events than ever at the Winter Games.
The ceremony is 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.
Not on the set list: 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 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….
For people who don’t know much about Russia, the ceremony’s director, Konstantin Ernst, promised ‘relatively simple metaphors’—and no obscure references, like the nurses in the London Games’ opening ceremony representing the National Health Service, which he called one of the most ‘incomprehensible’ moments in Olympic history.
Ernst said Russian singers Tatu’s ‘Not Gonna Get Us’ was chosen because it’s one of the only Russian pop songs that international viewers might recognize.
Most of Friday’s performance will instead lean on Russia’s rich classical music traditions, with piano virtuoso Denis Matsuev performing and opera soprano Anna Netrebko singing the Olympic anthem.
Ernst also argued the choice of Tatu’s song was about motivating athletes with an upbeat dance song that challenges competitors by saying, ‘You’re not going to get us.’
Putin referred to none of that when speaking to IOC members and nearly 20 world leaders at a dinner late Thursday, instead stressing the importance of ‘mutual understanding, justice, pacifism.’
‘I’m feeling especially positive energy,’ he said. Despite hang-ups with some hotel rooms and last-minute construction problems, he said he hopes these games ‘allow people to appreciate our organizational capabilities and our traditional Russian hospitality.’
Ernst said the opening and closing ceremonies will make reference to the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, which some view as the first time the opening ceremony became such a big deal.
The show will be focused on TV audiences, with projections onto the stadium floor, so fans in the stands won’t enjoy the full effect.
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, Ernst said, ‘it’s hardly worth hoping for that.’
The Winter Games ceremony is generally a more low-key event than the summer opener. Ernst said organizers tried to keep it from dragging out too long, since most viewers only care to watch their own team and its key rivals.
But 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,’ Ernst said, with a smile.