SOCHI, Russia — When the giant cauldron was extinguished outside the stadium in Olympic Park at the end of Sunday night’s Closing Ceremony, that whooshing sound was the world exhaling after 17 days that began with doubt and dread and ended with relief and revelry.
“We did it! We conquered the Olympic summit,” organizing committee president Dmitry Chernyshenko exulted as the XXII Winter Games came to a successful end in this summer city by the Black Sea, the unlikeliest venue for the snow and ice sports in five-ringed history.
Not only did the hosts build two venue complexes and the connecting roads and rails from scratch in seven years, their athletes also topped the overall medals table for the first time since Russia became a distinct country after the demise of the Soviet Union.
“The country believed in us,” bobsled pilot Alexander Zubkov proclaimed after he’d produced the last of 13 gold medals and 33 overall, five ahead of the Americans, who were the leaders in Vancouver four years ago. “But nobody believed that Russia would even be in the top three in total medals, but we have won.”
Few believed that Russia, which never had hosted the Winter Games, could build everything from a speedskating oval to a sliding track to a snowboard halfpipe and keep them operative in a subtropical climate that could have turned everything into slush. “Today you can see for yourselves that Russia can keep its word,” said Dmitry Kozak, the Russian Federation’s deputy prime minister.
Of more concern than infrastructure in recent months was security, given the possibility of attacks by Islamic terrorists in the nearby Caucasus region who’d vowed to disrupt the Games. Though President Vladimir Putin had boasted that a “ring of steel” would protect the expansive Olympic area that stretched from the sea to the mountains 24 miles away, there was concern that the presence of tens of thousands of soldiers and police would create an intimidating atmosphere for what traditionally has been a peaceful and joyous celebration.
Yet the mood throughout the Games was relaxed and friendly, helped by thousands of smiling and helpful young volunteers. “Through you, everybody with an open mind could see the face of a new Russia: efficient and friendly, patriotic and open to the world,” International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach told them during his closing speech.
A country that traditionally has been wary of foreigners embraced them this time with an effusive bear hug. “Everyone has been respected, everyone has been welcomed,” said hockey player Julie Chu, the four-time Olympian who carried the American flag during the Closing Ceremony.
It was important to the new Russia that it be seen as a tolerant, progressive, and democratic nation so an IOC spokesman said that it was “unsettling” that a band of uniformed Cossacks, a throwback to the country’s czarist days, horsewhipped members of the Pussy Riot band who were singing “Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland.”
The push-pull between the country’s future and past was personalized by Putin, whose emphasis on traditional values resonates in the Russian soul but whose ambitious vision for these Games was meant as evidence of the country’s post-Soviet reincarnation. “Russia managed to prove to itself and the rest of the world that we can cope,” said Kozak, “that we are capable of making the impossible possible.”
The cost was cosmonautic — at $50 billion it was more than Beijing lavished on its much larger Summer Olympics in 2008 and seven times what Vancouver spent in 2010. The government also spent $3 billion a year preparing its athletes in the wake of a dispiriting performance four years ago, when Russia won only three gold medals and 15 overall.
“They were working hard after the shock they had in Vancouver and I think it’s just remarkable the progress that has been made within four years from Vancouver to today,” remarked Bach.
Some of that progress was imported. Vic Wild, a former American slalom snowboarder who’d married a Russian competitor, won two gold medals for his new country. And Ahn Hyun Soo, a short-track speedskater who’d won three gold medals for South Korea in 2006, was granted a Russian passport three years ago, changed his name to Victor An, and won three more golds (plus a bronze) for his new Motherland.
The rest of the Russians’ medal harvest was homegrown, though, and it was a reminder to their countrymen and to the rest of the world that the country that trademarked winter still could do wonders on skates and skis and sleds. Until now, their athletes just hadn’t had the chance to do it at home.
“We have proven that we can take on any challenge,” proclaimed Chernyshenko. “It is the great moment in our history, a moment to cherish and pass on to future generations. This is the new face of Russia, our Russia. And for us, these Games are the best Games ever.”