Soldiers Treated to Olympic Spectacle at Sochi

Team USA marched into Fisht Olympic Stadium to thunderous applause during an opening ceremony choreographed to highlight centuries of Russian folklore and history.

Ten soldiers from the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program are in Sochi for the XXII Olympic Winter Games, and WCAP bobsled driver Sgt. Nick Cunningham was among those smiling and waving to 40,000 spectators in the stadium and a worldwide television audience on February 7th, 2014.

“I’m overwhelmed with joy and pride,” Cunningham said after closely following the Stars and Stripes as Team USA — decked out in blue, star-studded jackets — paraded into the ceremony.

Russian President Vladimir Putin watched from a skybox. He welcomed the athletes from 97 nations and officially opened the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

The main character in the ceremony, however, was a young Russian girl named Lubov, meaning “love.” She guided the audience through generations of Russian heritage. The culture of 180 different Russian ethnic groups was displayed during what organizers dubbed the “most technologically innovative” show in Olympic history.

The extravaganza featured 2.64 million luminary objects produced by 132 projectors, and spectators wore flickering medallions in the grandstands, adding to the dazzling array of flashing lights. An aerial track on the arena roof pulled more than 80 large illuminated props across the ceiling. Twenty-five lifts and 18 traps on the stadium floor enabled props and performers to transition between the ceremony’s 13 scenes.

Three thousand performers, including Russian ballet stars, circus professionals, acrobats and young volunteers, adorned more than 6,000 costumes.

Opening ceremony producer Konstantin Ernst said he wanted to reveal Russian history in a manner that had not been seen, an exhibition “untainted by decades [of] propaganda and the Cold War.”

Featuring a “Dreams of Russia” theme, the show began with letters of the ancient Russian alphabet, Azbuka, swirling across video screens throughout the stadium. Lubov took the audience through the Cyrillic alphabet of Russian innovations, ranging from Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements to Pushkin’s fairy tales.

The young girl grabbed the strings of a kite that lifted her into the air and across the diverse Russian landscape of 6.6 million square miles, spanning nine time zones. She passed the volcanoes of Kamchatka, over a central Russian village, and around the cliffs of Lena Island, while floating alongside circling birds. The music of 18th-century composer Alexander Borodin, “Fly away on the Wings of the Wind,” accompanied a scene that ended with a husky and two reindeer popping their heads above a night snowstorm.

Another Borodin piece from “Prince Igor” accompanied an Olympic Rings segment that preceded the entrance of dignitaries, such as Putin and Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee. The Sretensky Monastery Choir then sang the Russian national anthem.

Unlike other Olympic opening ceremonies in which athletes entered the stadium from corner portals, here they seemingly came from underground, parading up a ramp from the middle of the playing field.

After the parade of nations, “Russian Odyssey” scene depicted centuries of infrastructure development, culminated by the construction of Fisht Olympic Stadium.

The stadium ceiling featured a giant horse-drawn “troika” sleigh that illuminated a “Rites of Spring” segment. Portraying the 1700s, the troika was pulled by horses galloping three abreast to move mail and passengers across the country. Appearing to slowly gallop across the ceiling, the troika symbolized the magic of Russian past. On the stadium floor below, puppets represented boyers, the highest rank of Russia’s medieval era.

Huge helium-filled inflatables represented the colorful, swirling domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in the “Festivity” scene and were accompanied by inflatable boyars and Dymkovo toys, symbols of Russian folk art. A street circus included 50 tumbling acrobats who enacted festivities of Maslenitsa, or Pancake Week, celebrated for centuries by Russians.

A segment on Peter the Great — the 17th-century czar who built St. Petersburg and brought commerce to Russia — was highlighted by 300 marching troops who symbolized changes he made to the Army. They marched off to a grand ball.

The imperial ball — enacted by Russian ballet stars and other dancers — was designed to depict a scene from Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” written in 1869. This 1,200-page novel followed the struggles of five Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars. The long waltz scene included music by Aleksander Sergeyevich Zatsepin.

The ball ended with Alfred Schnittke’s “Concerto Grosso No. 5” as a red vortex swirled across the ballroom floor and ceiling, representing the 1917 Revolution. The cogs of a giant industrial machine ground to a halt and a mechanical horse sculpture imploded. This scene was titled “Time Forward! Suprematic Ballet.”

The next act was “Moskva,” covering 40 years of the Soviet era, highlighted by massive construction. Construction workers were joined by policemen, students, athletes and cosmonauts on a metropolitan city map. This cross section was designed to depict a day in the life of a Soviet metropolis and ended with Lubov holding a red balloon.

Lubov then took the audience on a journey into a dream world of the future, punctuated by symbolic doves of peace, and a final piece comparing athletes to Olympic gods.

Following the speech of Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee President Dmitry Chernyshenko, International Olympic Coimmittee President Bach took the stage. He recounted how the Russians’ passion for sports on snow and ice prompted them to build the winter resorts around Sochi in just seven years, while other nations took decades to develop such facilities. He thanked the Russian hosts and challenged all athletes and their leaders to live up to the Olympic dream.

“Olympic Games are always about building bridges to bring people together,” Bach said. “Olympic Games are never about erecting walls to keep people apart. Olympic Games are a sports festival embracing human diversity in great unity.”

Tennis star Maria Sharapova carried the Olympic torch into the stadium. She handed it off to two-time Olympic pole vault medalist Elena Isinbaeva. The next runner was legendary heavyweight wrestler Alexandr Karelin, a four-time Olympic medalist who went undefeated for 13 years before losing to Team USA’s Rulon Gardner at the 2000 Olympic Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, the most historic upset in U.S. Olympic wrestling history. Gymnast Alina Kabaeva, a two-time Olympic medalist, then took the torch. She passed it to skater Irina Rodnina and Vladislav Tretyak, goalie of the legendary Russian hockey team of the 1970s.

Rodnina and Tretyak ran out of the stadium together past a host of Olympic volunteers. The two runners held their torch to a mini cauldron and the flame ignited a path up a pillar to light the cauldron of the XXII Olympic Winter Games at Olympic Park. Fireworks burst into the air and the stadium emptied in a matter of minutes as thousands rushed to see the aerial display.

The Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games officially had begun.

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