SOCHI, Russia — The Americans marched into the stadium wearing their love-’em-or-hate-’em star-spangled holiday sweaters. The Germans were garbed in throwback Peter Max rainbow psychedelia. The Canadians wore scarlet coats and knitted hats. The Bermudans sported their customary shorts. Why not? The Black Sea is right across the street.
All of the above were among the missing in 1980 when the Motherland last hosted the Olympics. Friday night’s Opening Ceremony of the XXII Winter Games was meant to be the Cyrillic spectacle that much of the planet missed or ignored because of the American-led boycott of Moscow’s summer version that provoked the absence of 65 nations, almost all of them US allies.
There are 88 countries present this time, eight more than competed 34 years ago, from Albania to newbie Zimbabwe, and they include a couple dozen nations that weren’t nations in 1980, when the socialist bloc still was intact.
The 15 republics of the old Soviet Union all compete as sovereign states now, as do the former Yugoslav republics and the two halves of what was Czechoslovakia. On Friday, Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, who grew up speaking reluctant Russian, carried Slovakia’s flag during the Opening Ceremony.
There never have been Games like these now underway in Vladimir Putin’s paradise by the Black Sea, where palm trees and snow-capped mountains can be captured in the same frame. The Winter Olympics never have been staged in a subtropical climate. They’ve never cost anywhere near the $50 billion in petrorubles the government has spent turning a ramshackle Stalinist sandbox into a winter wonderland. And they’ve never been held amid such disquiet and dissension.
From the moment the International Olympic Committee awarded the Games to the one corner of Russia that has no snow or ice, critics said that the Lords of the Rings were either corrupt or crazy. The weather in Sochi was anything but wintry. The Caucasus region was a terrorist powder keg. And everything from the hockey rinks to the halfpipe had to be built from scratch.
Putin, who flew to Guatemala in 2007 to lobby the members in person in English and French, earned the bid by putting his personal prestige on the line. These are his Games, both for better and worse, and they represent his vision for his country, which is rooted in its past. The theme of the ceremony was “Dreams of Russia,” the Russia of troikas and samovars and birch forests, of imperial balls and nesting dolls.
This was the Motherland of Peter the Great and Rasputin, of Cossacks and Communists, of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, of ballerinas and cosmonauts. And to light the cauldron outside there were the two icons of the quintessential Russian sports — hockey goalie Vladislav Tretiak and pairs skater Irina Rodnina — using the same torch that had been launched into space during the relay.
The Moscow Games belonged to a bygone country, an ungainly and unmanageable agglomeration of mismatched pieces that bordered a dozen neighbors and already was starting to come apart. The Sochi Games celebrate the original centerpiece of the USSR, the Russia that has been going through a turbulent transition for more than two decades.
“The Sochi Games are our chance to show the world the best that our country is proud of,” remarked organizing committee president Dmitry Chernyshenko. “Our hospitality, our traditions, our Russia.”
These Winter Olympics, the first ever held in a land whose name summons up images of hypothermia, are meant to also show off the new Russia, which is determined to be seen as daring and dynamic after emerging from communism’s dead weight.
If the idea of snowboarding and sledding on the Russian Riviera seemed as ludicrous as it would in Laguna Beach, that was the whole point. If Putin could turn summer into winter, what couldn’t he and his countrymen do?
While the cost of these Games is exorbitant — more than six times what Vancouver spent four years ago — the venues are both imaginative and impressive. The Coastal Cluster, just beyond the seashore, features all of the ice arenas within walking distance. The Mountain Cluster, connected by both road and rail, offers all of the snow facilities.
“What took decades in other parts of the world has been achieved here in just seven years,” IOC president Thomas Bach observed during his speech. “This is a remarkable achievement.”
After years of skepticism and criticism and months of mounting anxiety about security, the world finally will get to see what the homeland of Tolstoy and Tretiak can do when it invites the world in to play.
That was the party bosses’ plan for Moscow before the Red Army marched into Afghanistan. This time the whole global gang is here, skating and schussing where Stalin once kept his dacha.John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.