Sochi's opener: Let Putin's Games begin
SOCHI, Russia — It's designed to celebrate a millennium of Russian might and this country's modern rebound, and kick off two weeks of extraordinary human endeavors and planetary sportsmanship. But the ceremony opening the Sochi Olympics today, more than anything, will be about one man: Vladimir Putin.
He charmed and strong-armed his way to hosting the games at a summer beach resort that he envisioned as a winter paradise. He stared down terrorist threats and worldwide wrath at a scarcely veiled campaign against gays. He has shrugged off critiques that construction of the most costly games in Olympic history was both shoddy and corrupt.
Ballet, man-made snow and avant-garde art will make an appearance at Sochi's opening ceremonies, though as with all past opening ceremonies, the details are under wraps. They can't really compete with the cinematic splendor of the London Olympics or the pyrotechnic extravaganza of Beijing, but then again, the Winter Games are usually more low-key.
No matter. All Putin needs is an event that tells the world "Russia is back."
It's a message meant for millions around the world who will watch the show — and meant for his countrymen, too.
Russians will form the bulk of the spectators in Sochi for the Olympics, a people whose forebears endured centuries of oppression, a revolution that changed the world, a Soviet experiment that built rockets and nuclear missiles but struggled to feed its people. Russians who sometimes embrace Putin's heavy hand because they fear uncertainty more than they crave freedom, and who, despite inhabiting the largest country in the world, feel insecure about their place in it.
They're pinning especially high hopes on their athletes, once a force to be reckoned with and the pride of the nation. They were an embarrassment at the Vancouver Games in 2010, with just three gold medals and a string of doping busts.
This year, Russia has cleaned up its game and is presenting hundreds of skaters, skiers and other champions in the arenas on Sochi's seashore and in the nearby Caucasus Mountains slopes of Krasnaya Polyana.
While the United States, Norway and Germany are seen as leading medal contenders, Russia will be pushing hard to bring home a bundle for the home crowd. Putin put on the pressure even as he tried to motivate them this week: "We are all counting on you."
If there was any doubt, it was erased on the first evening of competition, as a booming crowd of Russian shouted "heroes" at world champion pairs Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov as they, along with men's skater Evgeni Plushenko, pushed Russia into the early lead in the new competition of team figure skating.
"It's pressure, but this pressure helps us," Volosozhar said. "They push us very hard," Trankov added.
It was a night on which competition and the athletes finally took a back seat to thoughts about terrorism, but they remain not far from anyone's mind.
A few hundred miles (kilometers) away lies Chechnya, the site of two wars in the past two decades. And Dagestan, childhood home to the two brothers suspected in the Boston Marathon bombings and where militants regularly mount attacks. And Volgograd, where two suicide bombs killed 34 people in December.
A decade ago, extremists hid a bomb in a stadium in Chechnya during construction. Then when the Kremlin-backed Chechen president showed up for a ceremony, the bomb went off, killing him and several others.
Fear of terrorism have clouded the run-up, fueled Putin's strict security agenda and brought U.S. warships to the region. And about 40,000 Russian security forces are working to prevent an attack on the games, and they stand watch in all corners of Sochi and its Olympic Park on the sea and built-from-scratch mountain ski resort.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security rekindled the fears this week, warning that terrorists may try to smuggle explosives into Russia in toothpaste tubes. Yet some air travelers heading to Sochi have defied a temporary Russian ban on all liquids in carry-on luggage, and brought toothpaste and other toiletries on board unnoticed.
The world will be watching the entire Olympic machine in Sochi, and much as it did when Soviet-era Moscow hosted the Summer Olympics in 1980, it will use what it sees to sit in judgment of Putin's Russia, where he has suffocated political opposition and ruled overtly or covertly for 15 years.
Is it a has-been superpower that can't keep the electricity on during a hockey game? Or a driver of the 21st century global economy? A diplomatic middleweight with ties to despots that wields influence only via its veto at the United Nations? Or a fairy tale of prosperous resurrection from the communist collapse and its brutal aftermath?
Who sits next to Putin on the VIP balcony may provide some clue. President Barack Obama and some other Western leaders are staying away, upset at a law that he championed barring homosexual "propaganda" aimed at minors that has been used to more widely discriminate against gays.
But organizers say some 66 leaders — including heads of state and international organizations — are joining the games, including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
The opening ceremonies will gloss over these ugly bits as they hand over the games to the men and women who will spend the next two weeks challenging records and the limits of human ability.
Some 3,000 athletes, a record for the Winter Olympics, will come for 98 events, including the new slopestyle extreme skiing competition that began Thursday. More women will compete than ever before.
Among Americans, Shaun White is skipping slopestyle to focus on winning a third-straight snowboarding gold in halfpipe. Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner will try to out-skate South Korea's Yuna Kim.
The pros of the NHL won't arrive until Monday, taking a special break in their season to hop on charter flights to Sochi and splitting off to compete against each other on behalf of their homelands.
Legions of small business owners, political leaders and residents of this region are also hoping that Putin wins his gamble the games will turn Sochi into a year-round resort zone. Glitches with not-quite-ready hotels and a run of last-minute construction have seeded doubts.
The opening ceremony provides a moment of inspiration. Who will light the Olympic cauldron? Russian hockey great Vladislav Tretiak — among the best to ever play the game — has said he'll take part, and some speculate he'll be Putin's choice for the high honor of the opening ceremony.
It may be too much for Putin to hope that three hours of an opening ceremony will reshape his global image. But in a country that embraces superlatives and spectacle and set a world standard for classical dance, he can count on them to provide a good show.