Sochi, Russia — At the start, a young girl, sort of like the Russian Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” flew up, up, up to a different world that gave an expansive view of the amazing history of Russia and its people.
At the end, the Olympic flame burned colossal and stout atop a dramatically towering cauldron, befitting of the glory of Games, high over the cluster of illuminated, brand new venues built specifically for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
The staging of the Opening Ceremony on Friday shared the characteristics critics attribute to Russian ballet: vigor, beauty, endurance and a continual, unified flow.
The scene at Fisht Olympic Stadium unfolded like a great theatrical performance.
The music included Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Borodin. The great Russian soprano Anna Netrebko sang the Olympic Hymn, which has been sung at every Games since 1896.
“Oh, ancient immortal spirit ... ” are some of the words in English. “Shine in the momentum of noble contest.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the Games open, and summoned a smile.
Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, spoke and said the Olympics are about tolerance, not discrimination. It is as close as he came to addressing the emphasis by the Russian Administration on its policies against homosexuality.
Bach also took on politicians of the world, whom he has criticized for politicizing the Games.
“Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful, direct political dialogue and not on the backs of these athletes,” he said.
He thanked the Russian people, the residents of Sochi and the region.
“Now, you are living in an Olympic region,” Bach said. “I am sure you will enjoy the benefits for years to come.”
Some Russians have stated publicly they are less certain, including environmental activist Veygeny Vitishko, who was arrested two days before the Games for allegedly swearing at a bus stop on the way to a demonstration.
The development of the Olympic sites, especially the 40-mile roadway to the skiing and sliding events in the North Caucasus Mountains are criticized by some Russians and many environmental advocates around the world, for destroying pristine natural sites, including one of the watershed in one of largest undeveloped wildernesses in Eastern Europe
All about the athletes
Viacheslav Fetisov, winner of the 1997 Stanley Cup with the Red Wings and two gold medals with Russia, helped carry the Olympic flag. And the great Russian goaltender, Vladislav Tretiak, and Olympic medal winning figure skater Irina Rodnina lit the cauldron with the eternal Olympic flame.
Putin’s role was to say few words. He applauded, especially when the 225-member Russian team, the second largest, entered the arena.
But mostly, despite the fact the organization and staging of the Games proceeded largely from his leadership in a hands-on way, he was largely stoic.
Few Westerners were among the 40 world leaders who attended the Games, along with about 40,000 spectators.
As the ceremony started, many in Fisht were aware of a report out of Turkey that someone had threatened to commandeer a Ukrainian flight to Istanbul and was determined to have it flown to Sochi. F-16s were scrambled at word from the pilot.
But, just like the feeling during the first two days of the Games, the threat of terrorism failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the proceedings.
The athletes, who regularly save the Games from the distraction of politics, the seemingly inevitable problems with their staging and the turmoil of the world, marched into the stadium in a long parade of teams from 88 nations, a record.
It included Team USA, the largest with a Winter Olympics record 230 members, 13 of whom list Michigan hometowns, and 52 of whom train in the state or went to school here.
Like all NHL players, none of the 10 Red Wings playing for several countries were here.
The march also included sharp contrasts, as the tiny Cayman Island contingent, which includes one athlete, was followed by the 221-member Canadian team.
One of the strongest receptions from the audience was awarded to the team from Ukraine.
Several hundred miles northwest of Sochi, advocates for more freedom and representative government have been protesting in the streets of Kiev since late autumn against a Russian backed government that terminated negotiations on a trade agreement with the European Union, just days before EU officials thought the deal would be signed.
American athletes were impressed by the Opening Ceremony, which often drives home the point the athletes are truly Olympian.
“Sochi’s Opening Ceremony was a brilliant celebration of all the athletes’ accomplishments,” said ice dancer Evan Bates, of Ann Arbor, who recently graduated from Michigan. “Marching with my countrymen and women was euphoric.
“That was definitely one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done,” said Colorado’s Arielle Gold, who participates in snowboarding.
“I think the fact I’m at the Olympics has finally set in.”
“I’ve been dreaming about this moment for as long as I can remember,” said Vermont’s Alex Deibold, also competing in snowboarding.
“All of the hard work I’ve put in over the years feels like it paid off the second I walked into the stadium. Definitely something I will always remember.”
Bach both greeted and encouraged the athletes.
“Russia and the Russians have set the stage for you, the best winter athletes on our planet,” he said. “From this moment on, you are not only the best, you are Olympic athletes.
“You will inspire us with your outstanding sports performances. You have come here for sport. You have come here with your Olympic dreams.”