Kovacevic: Opening ceremony embodies Russian 'riddle'
SOCHI, Russia — It was Winston Churchill who spoke, in one of history's most famous speeches in fall 1939: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”
The British prime minister was, of course, trying to predict Russia's next move in World War II.
But the truly classic quotes stand the test of time for a reason, and every syllable of that one could be applied to a spectacular, subdued, silly, serious, well-crafted, clumsy, conservative, controversial, humble and hubris-filled opening ceremony for the XXII Winter Olympics on Friday night at Fisht Stadium.
It was entertaining, too.
And eclectic beyond belief.
Russian officials and especially Vladimir Putin, the authoritarian president, had talked for months about wanting to show “a new Russia” to the world, one that wouldn't intimidate so much as embrace. And then TV show star Yana Churikova shouted to the capacity crowd of 40,000-plus: “Welcome to the center of the universe!”
They opened with a girl citing Tchaikovsky and Chekhov and Tolstoy, among their greatest gifts to civilization. And then, when the huge Russian delegation was introduced to conclude the Parade of Nations, the place fairly erupted to the rocking beat of “Not Gonna Get Us,” a defiant number that had been pumped into loudspeakers around the Olympic Park all afternoon.
They were adamant, time and again, that no amount of global outrage would change Russia's anti-gay laws, even just during the Games. And then Tatu, a female pop duo that carved its image as a faux lesbian act by kissing and holding hands on stage, was invited to perform their “Not Gonna Get Us” live. And they held hands.
They stirred the stadium with the surprise of the night in having the goaltending icon Vladislav Tretiak be one of the two to light the torch. And then, the other was equally celebrated figure skater Irina Rodnina, who a few months ago tweeted a racist message about President Barack Obama , deleted it and has yet to apologize for it.
They highlighted Russian history from Peter the Great to the periodic table of elements to Sputnik and Mir. And then they staged a bizarre fight between robotic, oversized mascots that was almost as much of a head-scratcher as London's Florence Nightingale nurses.
Get the picture?
Neither did Churchill, apparently.
The Russians, to offer full context, embrace this quirkiness. It's a point of pride, an expression of individuality to the culture.
And in fuller context, it's richly possible that much of the show was … well, for show.
For example, the government and church in Russia have not seen eye to eye for as long as there have been governments and churches, but the national anthem was sung by the Russian Orthodox Monastery Choir. It could have been a grand gesture or yet another token to stave off a larger fight.
What will sting them most — yes, even more than that fifth Olympic ring failing to bloom from a mechanical snowflake — is how the world leaders stayed away.
Organizers announced early Friday that 65 “world leaders” would attend. The list they produced was about half that, if counting actual heads of state.
Among those not represented were the United States, Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, Spain, Germany and Australia. Whether that was because of politics or human rights or security concerns varied.
The United States made one of the strongest statements: Obama did not attend and neither did first lady Michelle Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden nor any high-ranking member of the administration.
In their stead, the president tabbed tennis legend Billie Jean King and hockey player Caitlin Cahow, both openly gay, as representatives.
King could not attend because of her mother's death, but the choices were seen as symbolically protesting Russia's anti-gay laws.
Whether the evening advanced Russia's “national interest,” to rewind Churchill again, remains to be seen.
Thomas Bach, the new International Olympic Committee chief, expressed delight at the show.
“We can expect a great Games,” Bach said afterward. “The stage is set.”
The reviews were strong from participants as well, almost universally so from the Americans.
“Best show I've ever seen,” alpine skier Erik Fisher said. “The Olympic spirit is certainly alive in Sochi.”
That, too, remains to be seen. The locals partied deep into the night for the first real sign of life in these parts, but there are doubts about the crowds to come.
Organizers claim 70 percent of tickets are sold, but early ice skating and skiing events were so sparsely attended that thousands of volunteers were rushed into both venues to fill empty seats.
The Russians had best solve that riddle soon to keep the show rolling.