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Olympics

Ten thoughts from the extravagant Opening Ceremony in Sochi

Photo: Robert Beck/SI

From performers wearing the lights of the Russian flag to a ballet rendition of 'War and Peace,' the Opening Ceremony in Sochi was full of visual extravagance.

The Sochi Olympics are officially upon us -- and here are ten thoughts from the scene of the extravagant Opening Ceremony that kicked them off:

1. Perhaps President Obama’s choice of delegation members was viewed as a provocative response to Russia’s controversial anti-gay laws, but the executive creative director of the ceremonies, Konstantin Ernst, seemed to be making a statement during the pre-ceremony warm-up period. First a Russian band came on and played “We Are The Champions” by Queen. Then, in a tamer form of arena Kiss Cam, while Minnie Riperton’s “Loving You” played, the announcers from the stage told audience members: “If you see yourself on the screen, you must hug your neighbor. That’s the law.” On giant video screens, pairs of people, couples or not, were framed by hearts. Four of the eight couples frames were of the same gender. Are you watching, Mr. Putin? But of course that was nothing compared to the next number in which a group of 60 men dressed in uniform – “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome the Russian Police” – sang “Get Lucky” in Russian and English. The Russian duo t.A.T.u. then closed the warm-up by performing a song while holding hands.

2. When an announcer from the infield asked the audience members to scream, she expressed disappointment in the tepid response by saying, “Ah, you sound like an old Soviet crowd. Let’s have some emotion. Not like the Soviets, no?"

3. One of the more creative numbers of the night depicted the unfurling of the Russian flag during the playing of the anthem. Performers stood in the middle of the infield wearing suits with white, blue and red lights, signifying the colors of the Russian flag. As the song finished, they ran in serpentine fashion, creating the effect from above the stadium floor of a flag blowing in the wind. Of course, some effects worked better than others. At one point, five sets of metal bars shaped like snowflakes dropped from the enclosed roof. Four of them opened up to create Olympic rings. The fifth failed to open.

4. For the first time at an opening ceremony, athletes marched into the stadium from an opening in the middle of the infield. The 88 teams represented – from Greece, which always marches out first as the host of the inaugural Olympics, to the host nation Russia at end of the parade of nations – all marched in from a sunken platform. The new way of marching was actually created partly as a time-saver, keeping the parade to a manageable 45 minutes.

5. With his Boston Bruins still playing out the NHL’s pre-Olympic schedule, Bruins team captain Zdeno Chara was granted early leave to miss two games so he could carry the Slovakian flag during the opening ceremony. Former NHLer Sandis Ozolinsh was also here carrying the flag for his native Latvia. Chara’s appearance called to mind the opening ceremony of the Pan-Am Games in Santo Domingo in 2003, when the final torchbearer was Dominican baseball star Pedro Martinez, who had been granted leave by the Boston Red Sox during the season in order to attend the ceremony.

6. Instead of a scarlet letter, the Indian team of three athletes – an alpine skier, a cross-country skier and a luger -- marched in not with its own flag but with a five-ringed Olympic flag, and its athletes were introduced as Independent Olympic Participants. The Indian federation lost its accreditation as an Olympic committee in good standing last year when it refused to ban officials who were accused of corruption from running for high office within the federation.

7. Nordic combined veteran Todd Lodwick led the U.S. contingent, which appeared to be the liveliest, if not quite the largest at the ceremony. Russian has 232 athletes in Sochi; the U.S. has 230. Not all the U.S. athletes marched, particularly those who were due to compete on Saturday, but the group was so enthusiastic, several athletes passed in front of Lodwick during their march, a ceremonial no-no, since the flag-bearer should always lead. U.S. mogul skier Heidi Kloser marched in on crutches, which was a feat in itself. Kloser tore her MCL and ACL and had a slight fracture of her right femur during qualifying on Thursday. Her teammates brought along a wheelchair in case she needed it during the ceremony, but Kloser walked along without it.

8. Political statements are not officially permitted at the Games and certainly not at the two ceremonies. Security people have been known to remove any spectator who waves anything other than a recognized national flag of a participating team. But one spectator in our section took the risky step of holding up a large sign in red and white letters that read: Georgia Sukhumi. During what became known as the Sukhumi Massacre of 1993 as part of the war in Abkhazia, Abkhaz separatists together with Russian allies conducted an ethnic cleansing of locals in the region.

9. Of course you can’t possibly depict War and Peace and the Russian Revolution in a ballet, right? Organizers did. First, the tale of the Napoleonic Wars were set against the backdrop of opulent parties and dramatic battles. Other dancers came on to depict the change from Czarist to Bolshevik rule before renderings of a giant speeding locomotive and beams of light. It was industrial and balletic at the same time.

10. The entrance of the Olympic flame and the lighting of the cauldron are always dramatic moments in Olympic ceremonies. That remained the case tonight. Tennis star Maria Sharapova, an Olympic silver medalist, brought the flame into the stadium and was followed in order by pole vault gold medalist Yelena Isinbayeva, Greco-Roman wrestling champ Alexander Karelin, rhythmic gymnastics gold medalist Alina Kabaeva – not that it hurts that she is also Putin’s girlfriend – and the final pair: figure skating champ Irina Rodnina and hockey goaltender Vladislav Tretiak. Rodnina and Tretiak carried the flame outside the stadium and lit the cauldron together.

Now let the Games begin.