SOCHI, Russia — Seventeen million square kilometers spanning nine time zones and populated by 180 ethnicities, Russia welcomed the world tonight. She still stretches from the Baltic Sea to the Kamchatka Peninsula on the Pacific Rim, and from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea. But she’s not the Russia of old. She’s ablaze in colorful lights, giant stadiums, and she even has a sense of humor.
But Russia also has a proud history. From the Cyrillic alphabet to the cosmonauts who raised the Russian flag at the ceremony’s beginning, the Opening Ceremony reminded the world of Russia’s significant contributions to music, dance, science and literature — a grand and sophisticated cultural performance under one giant roof.
|Figure skater Madison Chock enters the stadium with Team USA during the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Olympic Winter Games at Fisht Olympic Stadium
Breaking with tradition, the Parade of Nations, with 88 delegations and roughly 3,500 athletes, emerged as if from underground, not from the stadium wings. The athletes also came in earlier than usual in the ceremony, no doubt so they too could enjoy the program.
Six-time Olympian Todd Lodwick led in Team USA’s 230-athlete delegation, so large that it took up the entire end of the stadium as the athletes paraded to their seats. Lodwick’s smile was as wide as when he first walked into an Opening Ceremony 20 years ago at age 17.
"I don't think the excitement of walking into the stadium during the Opening Ceremony has changed after my third Olympics,” said biathlete Lanny Barnes. “There is something truly special about putting on the Team USA gear and walking in behind the flag. It gives me goose bumps every time I think about it. I can think of no greater honor in sports."
“That was such an amazing feeling,” echoed ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson. “It really is emotional because everything I've done in sport has led up to this moment. It's everything I have dreamed of for the past five years and specifically the last six months.”
“It was such a rush,” gushed cross-country skiing world champion Jessie Diggins, in her first Olympic Winter Games. “I can't keep the smile off my face! I feel so much pride for the USA!”
And then the ceremony visited the “Dreams of Russia,” a montage of the country’s greatest hits: the Argonauts who sailed to this Black Sea coast 100 years before the Trojan War, Russian troikas, Peter the Great, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” the ballet, composers like Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, and modern scientific contributions, especially to space travel.
But the journey was punctuated by fun, such as giant animated versions of Sochi 2014’s three furry mascots, the leopard, polar bear and hare. Then a variety of onion domes, elements of St. Basil’s, like fanciful confections from an ice cream shop, came to life — as if Willy Wonka had also come to Russia. And even before the ceremony began, a jovial pre-show warm-up featured a Russian military group singing Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and a Russian rendition of Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” The new Russia has a sense of humor.
Then the show ventured into the culture for which Russia is famous: Corinthian columns alit from within rose from the floor and framed a classic Russian ballet featuring Svetlana Zakharova, prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet, and other well-known Russian dancers.
A thrumming giant red aerial train ominously announced the Russian Revolution of 1917 — when the classic, rural and sometimes fanciful transformed to industry and modernization. The train was inspired by a painting by Kazimir Malevich, “Suprematist Composition,” which sold for $60 million in 2008.
Last in this dream is Moskva (Moscow, in English), a celebration of the city’s growth in the modern era — tall art deco buildings, classic Lada and Volga cars, traffic jams.
Supposedly holding the dream together is the character Lyubov (“love”), played by a local 11-year-old gymnast named Liza Temnikova from Krasnodar. The intrepid girl flew through Fisht Stadium. She especially stood out when she was flying high above the stadium.
Now reborn in the late 20th and 21st centuries, Russia dreamed of hosting the Winter Games in Sochi. Seven years ago, this dream came true, leading to this evening’s celebration — and the ensuing 17 days of competition. Much like Russia’s dreams turned it into a great country, this Olympic dream turned a palm-treed coastal resort into a stage for the world.
After President Vladimir Putin declared the Games open, a fabulous iridescent version of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” took us back to classic Russia, featuring ballerina Diana Vishneva. And the Olympic Hymn was sung by another Russian great: opera singer Anna Netrebko.
As the fireworks emphatically ended the ceremony — and opened the Games — the athletes turned their attention to sport but not without a bit of awe.
“That was very impressive — the best show I've ever seen,” said alpine skier Erik Fisher. “The Olympic spirit is certainly alive in Sochi.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.