Russians celebrate as costliest Olympics ever comes to a close
Glitzy closing ceremony sets seal on controversial Games
Flushed with pride after a spectacular showing at the costliest Olympics ever, Russia celebrated 17 days of sport-driven global unity on Sunday night with a farewell show that hands off the Winter Games to their next host, Pyeongchang in South Korea. Said the head of the International Olympic Committee: “Russia delivered all what it had promised.”
Raucous spectators chanted “Ro-ssi-ya! Ro-ssi-ya!” before being surrounded by fireworks and carried through a visually stunning, sometimes surreal panorama of Russian history and culture. The crowd was in a party mood after the high-security games passed off safely without feared terror attacks.
“This is the new face of Russia – our Russia,” said Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the Sochi organising committee. He called the games “a moment to cherish and pass on to the next generations.”
In a charming touch, the Sochi organisers used the ceremony to make a joke at their own expense. Dancers in shimmering silver costumes formed themselves into four rings and a clump in the centre of the stadium. That was a wink to a technical glitch in the opening ceremony, when one of the five Olympic rings in a wintry opening scene failed to open. The rings were supposed to join together and erupt in fireworks.
This time, it worked: As Russian president Vladimir Putin watched from the stands, the dancers in the clump waited a few seconds and then formed a ring of their own, making five, drawing laughs from the crowd.
The nation’s US$51 billion investment – topping even Beijing’s estimated US$40 billion for the 2008 Summer Games – transformed a decaying resort town on the Black Sea into a household name. All-new facilities, unthinkable in the Soviet era of drab shoddiness, showcased how far Russia has come in the two decades since it turned its back on communism.
But the Olympic show didn’t win over critics of Russia’s backsliding on democracy and human rights under Putin and its institutionalised intolerance of gays. And while security was a potential problem going in, it appeared to be a big success coming out: Feared attacks by Islamic militants who threatened to target the games didn’t materialise.
Despite the bumps along the way, IOC president Thomas Bach used the closing ceremony to deliver an robustly upbeat verdict of the games, his first as IOC president. He was particularly enthusiastic about the host city itself.
“What took decades in other parts of the world was achieved here in Sochi in just seven years,” Bach said in declaring the games closed.
As dusk fell, Russians and international visitors streamed into the stadium for the ceremony featuring the extinguishing of the Olympic flame. Day and night, the flame became a favorite backdrop for “Sochi selfies,” a buzzword born at these games for the fad of athletes and spectators taking DIY souvenir photos of themselves.
Russia celebrated itself and its rich gifts to the worlds of music and literature in the ceremony. Performers in smart tails and puffy white wigs performed a ballet of grand pianos, pushing 62 of them around the stadium floor while soloist Denis Matsuev played thunderous bars from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No.2.
There was, of course, also ballet, with dancers from the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky, among the world’s oldest ballet companies. The faces of Russian authors through the ages were projected onto enormous screens, and a pile of books transformed into a swirling tornado of loose pages.
Athletes were saying goodbye to rivals-turned-friends from far off places, savouring their achievements or lamenting what might have been – and, for some, looking ahead to 2018.
Winners of Russia’s record 13 gold medals marched into the stadium carrying the country’s white, blue and red flag, which was raised alongside the Olympic flag. Athletes streamed by their hundreds into the stadium, dancing and taking photos of themselves. Earlier, giant screens flashed highlights of their Olympic exploits. With a 3-0 victory over Sweden in the men’s hockey final Sunday, Canada claimed the last gold from the 98 medal events.
Not all of the headlines out of Sochi were about sport. Organisers faced criticism going in about Russia’s strict policies toward gays, though once the games were under way, most every athlete chose not to use the Olympic spotlight to campaign for the cause. And an activist musical group and movement, Pussy Riot, appeared in public and was horsewhipped by Cossack militiamen, drawing international scrutiny.
And during the last days of competition, Sochi competed for attention with violence in Ukraine, Russia’s neighbor and considered a vital sphere of influence by the Kremlin.
Bach singled out Ukraine’s victory in women’s biathlon relay as “really an emotional moment” of the games, praising Ukrainian athletes for staying to compete despite the scores dead in protests back home.
“Mourning on the one hand, but knowing what really is going on in your country, seeing your capital burning, and feeling this responsibility, and then winning the gold medal,” he said, “this really stands out for me.”