February 7

OLYMPICS COMMENTARY: Opening Ceremony rises above Sochi’s problems

The build-up to the 2014 Games has been frought with criticism and controversy, but the extravaganza to mark the opening of the Winter Olympics put all that in the shade.

By Mark Purdy

San Jose Mercury News

SOCHI, Russia — All right, so that crazy segment with the immense flying horses was well done. So was most of the other stuff.

click image to enlarge

Artists perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014.(AP Photo/J. David Ake)

And man, did the Russians ever need it.

After the angst and storm of previous days, Friday night’s Opening Ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics delivered. For two hours, security concerns and construction troubles were forgotten as Games organizers staged one of the better versions of what amounts to the planet’s biggest halftime show.

In fact, this halftime show was even better than the Super Bowl halftime show. That one didn’t feature killer amplified music from Russian classical composers.

Friday’s did. The pageantry was impressive, despite one minor technical glitch. So was the parade of athletes, which had no glitches. Plus, no stray dogs were killed in the process. Although one was seen walking about the concourse shortly before the music and spectacle began.

As a bonus, there were welcome eyebrows raised when the ceremonies’ usually boring speeches took a slight detour into a place no one expected — with subtle yet pointed references to Russia’s controversial “Gay Propaganda” ban that has rightly drawn international scorn.

Thomas Bach, head of the International Olympic Committee, said halfway through his speech that the Games must be held “with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason.”

Those words drew loud applause from the athletes sitting behind Bach as well as the entire stadium. More surprising was a phrase uttered by Sochi Organizing Committee president Dmitry Chernyshenko, who told the crowd that “when we come together in all our diversity, it is the Olympic Games that unite us.”

Again, there was an ovation after that sentence. Perhaps the word “diversity” in Russian doesn’t carry all the connotations it does in English. But the spectators clearly decided on their own interpretation. And after Bach’s remarks, you could sense thousands of eyes turning toward Russian president Vladimir Putin, sitting in his private box, for reaction.

There was none, of course. Putin has the most relentless stone face on the planet. So who knows what he made of it all? Brian Boitano, the Bay Area figure skater and 1988 gold medal winner, is here as part of the official U.S. delegation sent by President Obama. And as one of delegation’s openly gay athletes, Boitano hoped that his presence would quietly send the proper message.

“Ultimately, it would be great to change perceptions,” said Boitano, adding that he and the other U.S. delegates’ primary mission was to “support our athletes” at the ceremonies and competition.

Putin, it is said, has his own perception-changing mission — to erase the stereotype of Russia as a dour, sullen nation. Friday’s ceremonies were planned with that in mind. During the “pre-show” segment, for instance, a large Russian military choir in full uniform busted out a version of Daft Punk’s poppy “Get Lucky” song.

When the actual program began, there was the usual assortment of creatures and animation soaring across the stadium roof, with dancers below. Putin grinned when the Olympic mascots appeared. He did not smile when one of the high-tech lighting stunts failed — with just four, not five, snowflakes morphing into the five Olympic rings.

It wasn’t the first time such a goof has marred a Winter Games ceremonies. Four years ago in Vancouver, the Olympic torch itself malfunctioned when it failed to rise out of the ground properly. But given the construction troubles and corruption allegations that have surrounded these Olympics, the lighting malfunction seemed symbolic.

Once more, however, the march of athletes into the stadium tended to make everyone forget the outside world. It’s always the best 40 minutes or so of the evening. The USA team received a nice, if not raucous, reception from the Russian audience, even if the American parade uniforms featured wild stars-and-stripes sweaters that appeared to have been knitted by a psychedelic grandma.

(Continued on page 2)

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