SOCHI, Russia — There were human doves twirling to Tchaikovsky, ballerinas waltzing with Tolstoy, and a prolonged roar for a Russian team wearing the coolest of fur-lined coats.
On a chilly night along the shores of the Black Sea, Russia welcomed the world to the Sochi Olympics on Friday with a giant embrace that was equal parts elegant, awkward and Putin.
The three-hour opening ceremony at Fisht Olympic Stadium highlighted the beauty of the Russian culture and strength of the Russian spirit. But it did little to lift the cloud of uneasiness hanging over a Games that began amid protests over Russian anti-gay laws and fear over terrorism. Somehow it seemed fitting when a set of floating snowflakes suddenly transformed themselves into Olympic rings — but only four of them. The fifth snowflake never changed.
Russian television viewers, however, saw all five rings, as the show’s producer Konstantin Ernst recognized the malfunction shortly before it occurred and immediately ordered an image from rehearsals to be transmitted in its place.
“It would be ridiculous to focus on the ring that would not open,” said Ernst later. “It would be silly.”
During a ceremony that officially began the competition for 3,000 athletes competing in 15 sports, there were many other unvarnished moments of richness and regret. Both were experienced by a U.S.A. contingent that marched into the stadium wearing loud sweaters composed of so many different bits of stars, stripes and rings, they looked like a patriotic stock car.
The Russians stole that show, as their athletes marched into the arena wearing colorful blue and red coats and fur caps while music thumped and 40,000 fans rose to their feet to cheer and flash blinking blue lights. The ovation, march and music lasted
for several long minutes. It felt like Staples Center when the Lakers take the court.
There were also loud cheers for the cool and dancing bobsledders from Jamaica, the Bermuda-shorts wearing contingent from — where else? — Bermuda, and the heavily bundled and extremely honest group from Iceland.
“Many think that because our country’s name is Iceland, it is a country of snow and ice, but it isn’t,” said flag bearer Saevar Birgisson, a cross-country skier. “Iceland has never won a medal in the Winter Olympics and we will not win in Sochi either.”
All were welcomed by a largely Russian crowd that seemed genuinely delighted by the experience. Unlike crowds in other Olympics, they clapped for everyone, booed nothing, and remained in their seats through the post-show fireworks.
“We are proud to have the privilege to host the entire world,” said Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee.
They were hosts with a sense of humor, as the pre-show featured the Red Army Choir MVD, in full uniform, singing Daft Punk’s Grammy-winning hit, “Get Lucky.” They were also hosts with a sense of their own controversies; the pre-show included a song by the Russian pop duo t.A.T.u., two women who are nationally famous for kissing in one of their music videos.
A subsequent tour through Russian history began with the hopeful image of a young girl being carried aloft by a kite. Giant balloons adorned with tops represented famous Russian cathedrals, and Peter the Great rowed furiously across a floor that had been transformed into the Baltic Sea. At times it felt like Disney’s It’s a Small World ride, only bigger.
But there was also a moment when all the lights turned red and a huge, menacing hammer, sickle and bust of a worker floated across the arena in an ode to the country’s Communist past. Some spectators audibly gasped at a representation that was once a cause of great fear and intimidation.
Through it all, the indoor arena was occasionally struck by fake snowfall that turned into a blizzard by consistent and overwhelming blasts of cold air that chilled spectators unprepared for outdoor conditions. Well, not all the spectators. Those sitting with Putin were given bright blue blankets that they all wore uniformly on their knees.
The Olympic Charter dictated that Vladimir Putin, as the host country’s president, could only utter one public sentence — “The 22nd Olympic Winter Games in Sochi I declare open,” he said in Russian.
That didn’t stop IOC President Thomas Bach from making remarks that seemed aimed at Putin’s policies, as he delivered a lengthy speech during which he said, “Olympic Games are never about erecting walls to keep people apart. Olympic Games are a sports festival embracing human diversity in great unity.”
The evening ended with the giant torch lighted by legendary hockey goaltender Vladislav Tretiak and figure skater Irina Rodnina, who together carried the flame outside the arena and stuck it into what looked like a giant tail section of an airplane. A glow and roar ensued and later, on their way back to the buses and trains, fans huddled around it in awe.
For months, these Olympics have frustrated and dismayed. At the end of their first night, finally, they warmed.