Olympics open with rich display of Russian ingenuity
Team Canada women's hockey player and opening ceremony flag-bearer Hayley Wickenheiser leads the Canadian athletes into Fisht Olympic Stadium to start the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Feb. 7, 2014. (AL CHAREST/QMI Agency)
On a cold and clear night in a palm-lined city that would look more at home in Florida than any winter city, a dream seven years in the making was finally realized.
On display was a marvel of architecture, ingenuity and technology, culture and expenditure, as the Olympic Winter Games opened on land that was just barren fields when this plan to bring the pinnacle of Olympic sports to the Black Sea coast was first announced.
Russia was awarded the Games in 2007, with the hosts promising to deliver brand new venues for all sports, in two tight clusters, by the sea and in the mountains just an hour away by car or train.
They needed massive amounts of infrastructure and enough sporting arenas in one central location to seat 75,000 fans at once.
It almost seemed it could not be done, but the Russians, in the face of controversy and continuous terrorist threats, pulled it off, even though it came with an unheard of $51-billion price tag.
"Tonight we are writing a new page in Olympic history," International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said.
"What took decades in other parts of the world has been achieved here in just seven years. It is a remarkable achievement."
The price it came with could not only be measured in terms of financial drain on the people of Russia but also the toll it has taken on the residents of Sochi.
It has not been an easy seven years. Many have been displaced and have had to deal with diversions and 24/7 construction near their homes for years. They've been somewhat coerced into being an Olympic city and have had to put up a collective brave face even though, for many, this type of opulence as no place in their economically-challenged lives.
"Thank you for your patience, thank you for your understanding during these years of transformation," Bach said to the people of Sochi. "Now you're living in an Olympic region. I'm sure you'll enjoy the benefits for many, many years to come."
That may be true. They are turning the Olympic area into a Russian Disneyland after the Games. Formula One racing, World Cup soccer and KHL hockey will all come to town, building on the legacy of the brilliantly designed venues in the Olympic village.
And while, there are reports of downtrodden locals showing their disdain for the Olympics and their grandeur, there is also a strong sense of pride among the Russian people for what has been achieved here.
The five-minute standing ovation for the Russian Federation team as it entered the Stadium was an indication of that.
And I've heard it many times in my week in Sochi. Many of the Russian people have come to believe the world will not be impressed with what they've done here, perhaps confusing dislike for government policy for a lack of respect for this Olympic achievement.
I have met several Russian people who expressed delight that I was impressed by the venues and the overall organization of the Games, along with the hospitality of the Russian people.
I assured them I'm not alone. Speak to just about any athlete who has arrived here, seen the venues and the facilities, and they will say the same thing.
On this cold and clear night, before the spectacular fireworks display clouded the night sky, the stars were shining on Sochi.
DA DA DA
The Opening Ceremony was befitting a host committee that was willing to spend just about anything to make these Olympic Games not only be happen but be different from any other.
From the dazzling technological displays, suspended props mystically floating through the air, to the thousands of performers from Russia's rich cultural scene, the event was being hailed as one of the most innovative opening ceremony in history.
There was only one very obvious glitch, when one of five snowflakes that were supposed to transform into Olympic rings, failed to do so. But that's nothing different from Vancouver, which was no stranger to glitches.
The depiction of Russian history through a combination of ballet and ultra-advanced technology was stunning, from a pirate ship crossing a roiling sea on a giant screen floor, to the Russian Revolution, to the building of Moscow and the Soviet Empire.
Even the veteran journalists, who have become skeptical after seeing so many of these lavish opening, were raving about this display.
Security was extra tight in Sochi on Friday as the Russians worked to keep fans and athletes safe from terrorist threats. Even as the opening ceremony was going on, reports surfaced that a Ukrainian passenger attempted to hijack an Istanbul-bound plane and divert it to Sochi on Friday.
But inside, the 40,000 or so mostly-Russian fans seemed impervious before Russian President Vladimir Putin officially declared the Games open. They saved their loudest cheers for the Russian team, but also had warm welcomes for Canada and Jamaica, among others.
Putin, for one, and the American team, were not so warmly welcomed, drawing something more like polite applause.
The superb Fisht Olympic Stadium, built primarily to host two events -- the opening and closing ceremonies of these Games, did not appear to be entirely full.
There were empty seats noticeable in sections all over the building.
But, while it lacked atmosphere early on, it was absolutely rocking when the Russian team arrived and it proved to be an excellent venue.
By the way, it is named after a nearby mountain and the name Fisht means "White Head" or "White Top."
There were 88 countries in the Parade of Nations and Canada marched out 35th, led by hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser. Instead of entering the building through one side, the athletes came up through a ramp in the floor, which was a very nice touch "¦ Interestingly, the players on the Canadian women's hockey team marched in the Opening Ceremony, but those from the United States did not, citing a 12 noon start for their first game Saturday. Canada plays at 5 p.m. vs. Switzerland "¦ Saw a lot of people on media row jump when a few cannons went off during the Opening Ceremony. After just reading about a hijacker that was attempting to divert a flight to Sochi, it was clear a few people were unnerved "¦ I have to say I always find the Russian national anthem very bold, impressive and easy on the ears "¦ Some fun facts and figures: There were 3,000 young performers in the opening ceremony, 2,694 volunteers, 81 aerial carriages, 2.64 lumens produced by 132 projectors, 140 TV cameras, and 9,223 people required to stage the event.