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, gay rights and coddling despots.
And that’s just the way Russian President 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 they’re “not gonna get us!”
Superlatives abounded and the mood soared as Tchaikovsky met pseudo-lesbian pop duo Tatu and their hit, “Not Gonna Get Us.” Russian TV presenter Yana Churikova shouted: “Welcome to the center of the universe!”
Yet, no amount of cheering could drown out the real world.
Fears of terrorism, which 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, and the suspected hijacker — who did not have a bomb — was subdued.
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.
That allowed for an old Soviet tradition of whitewashing problems to resurface, as state-operated broadcaster Rossiya 1 substituted a shot from a rehearsal with the rings unfolding successfully into their live broadcast.
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 miles 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.
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 about 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 host Olympics “with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason.”
For all the criticism, there was no shortage of pride at the ceremony in what Russia achieved with these games, after building up an Olympic Park out of swampland. The chief 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.