SOCHI, Russia (AP) - It’s designed to celebrate a millennium of Russian might and this country’s modern rebound, and kick off two weeks of extraordinary human endeavors and planetary sportsmanship. But the ceremony opening the Sochi Olympics on Friday, more than anything, will be about one man: Vladimir Putin.
He charmed and strong-armed his way to hosting the games at a summer beach resort that he envisioned as a winter paradise. He stared down terrorist threats and worldwide wrath at a scarcely veiled campaign against gays. He has shrugged off critiques that construction of the most costly games in Olympic history was both shoddy and corrupt.
Ballet, man-made snow and avant-garde art will make an appearance at Sochi’s opening ceremonies, though as with all past opening ceremonies, the details are under wraps. They can’t really compete with the cinematic splendor of the London Olympics or the pyrotechnic extravaganza of Beijing, but then again, the Winter Games are usually more low-key.
No matter. All Putin needs is an event that tells the world “Russia is back.”
It’s a message meant for millions around the world who will watch the show - and meant for his countrymen, too.
Russians will form the bulk of the spectators in Sochi for the Olympics, a people whose forebears endured centuries of oppression, a revolution that changed the world, a Soviet experiment that built rockets and nuclear missiles but struggled to feed its people. Russians who sometimes embrace Putin’s heavy hand because they fear uncertainty more than they crave freedom, and who, despite inhabiting the largest country in the world, feel insecure about their place in it.
They’re pinning especially high hopes on their athletes, once a force to be reckoned with and the pride of the nation. They were an embarrassment at the Vancouver Games in 2010, with just three gold medals and a string of doping busts.
This year, Russia has cleaned up its game and is presenting hundreds of skaters, skiers and other champions in the arenas on Sochi’s seashore and in the nearby Caucasus Mountains slopes of Krasnaya Polyana.
While the United States, Norway and Germany are seen as leading medal contenders, Russia will be pushing hard to bring home a bundle for the home crowd. Putin put on the pressure even as he tried to motivate them this week: “We are all counting on you.”
If there was any doubt, it was erased on the first evening of competition, as a booming crowd of Russian shouted “heroes” at world champion pairs Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov as they, along with men’s skater Evgeni Plushenko, pushed Russia into the early lead in the new competition of team figure skating.
“It’s pressure, but this pressure helps us,” Volosozhar said. “They push us very hard,” Trankov added.
It was a night on which competition and the athletes finally took a back seat to thoughts about terrorism, but they remain not far from anyone’s mind.
A few hundred miles (kilometers) away lies Chechnya, the site of two wars in the past two decades. And Dagestan, childhood home to the two brothers suspected in the Boston Marathon bombings and where militants regularly mount attacks. And Volgograd, where two suicide bombs killed 34 people in December.
A decade ago, extremists hid a bomb in a stadium in Chechnya during construction. Then when the Kremlin-backed Chechen president showed up for a ceremony, the bomb went off, killing him and several others.
Fear of terrorism have clouded the run-up, fueled Putin’s strict security agenda and brought U.S. warships to the region. And about 40,000 Russian security forces are working to prevent an attack on the games, and they stand watch in all corners of Sochi and its Olympic Park on the sea and built-from-scratch mountain ski resort.