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NPRFriday, February 7, 2014
Russian President Vladimir Putin waits to be introduced, as a television screen displays the snowflakes transforming into the Olympic rings.
Large-scale pageantry opened the Sochi Olympics on Friday, in a symbolically rich Opening Ceremony that was marred by an early and highly visible mistake — one of five massive Olympic rings failed to fully appear.
There were many other elements of the program to distract the estimated 3 billion people worldwide who watched the ceremony at Sochi's Fisht Stadium, with striking visuals that celebrated Russia's history and culture. But the ring failure will surely remain a subject of conversation.
The Opening Ceremony is virtually the only Olympic event that NBC isn't streaming online, a decision made to bolster its prime-time broadcast. While we track Friday's event here, NPR's pop-culture blogger Linda Holmes will give us her take on the ceremonies later tonight over at Monkey See.
Now that the ceremony is over and the torch is lit, we've updated some of the text of this post and added a few more images of the Olympic spectacle. You can keep following NPR's team in Sochi on our On The Road Tumblr.
Update at 3:55 p.m. ET: More About The Ceremony's Music
Two pieces of music made lasting impressions in Friday's ceremony – Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," which preceded the main show, and a mashup of several songs by tATu, which played as the Russian entourage marched.
The use of tATu could turn heads because, in an Olympics that has already been marked by controversy over gay rights in Russia, the two-woman group whose music was featured is "known for lesbian imagery," as Jeremy Hobson said on Here & Now today.
Jeremy asked NPR's Sam Sanders, who is in Sochi, what to make of the tATU song.
"Just keep in mind that tATu is the biggest pop act from Russia in the last 20 years or so – and that's not saying much," Sam tells Jeremy. "I'm not sure that they were trying to send a message, more than just send their most popular export" into the arena.
"One of the producers of the show acknowledged Friday that they're not London," Sam adds. "They don't have One Direction, they don't have the Spice Girls. They've got Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy. So, this was as pop as they could do."
Of course, the producers didn't ignore the giants of Russian culture — the show included part of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, for instance. Rachmaninoff was also used in the program.
As for the Daft Punk song, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs Choir (commonly called the Russian Police Choir, with around 50 members) did a cover of "Get Lucky" during the lead-in to the ceremony.
Dressed in full dress uniforms and singing over recorded music, they gamely attacked the song's high notes. We're hoping NBC includes that tidbit in their coverage tonight; it's a performance the policemen have been working on since late last year (their YouTube video has racked up nearly 4 million views).
Update at 3:30 p.m. ET: U.S. Olympians Excited After Ceremony
The U.S. Olympic Committee has released quotes from American athletes. A sampling:
"I don't think the excitement of walking into the stadium during the Opening Ceremony has changed after my third Olympics," says Lanny Barnes of Durango, Colo., who competes in the biathlon. "There is something truly special about putting on the Team USA gear and walking in behind the flag. It gives me goose bumps every time I think about it. I can think of no greater honor in sports."
"There is nothing more exciting than walking hand-in-hand with my teammates in the Olympic Opening Ceremony," says Debbie McCormick of Madison, Wis., who competes in curling. "My heart is filled with stars and stripes, joy and excitement."
Update at 2 p.m. ET: Olympic Flame Is Lit
Legendary Russian hockey goalie Vladislav Tretiak has lit the Olympic flame, along with Russian figure skater Irina Rodnina, winner of three Olympic gold medals and 10 world championships.
That means people who had bet Putin would light the flame — perhaps shirtless, and from horseback — will lose some money.
The flame shot upward on a long kind of fuel ramp, in a display that prompted the BBC's Hazel Irvine to say, "Well, that's a virile statement from a strong nation" (via Twitter).
Just before they lit the cauldron, figures made of light leaped into the stadium, passing through the air high above the floor.
Update at 1:55 p.m. ET: About The Fireworks
"Outdoor fireworks kind of scary from inside the enclosed stadium," NPR's Tamara Keith tells us, as the huge display builds to a finale for the Opening Ceremony.
Update at 1:35 p.m. ET: Opera At The Fisht
They're singing beautifully in the stadium, providing a bit of a breather after a whirlwind spectacle of Russia's history and symbolism. The Olympic and Russian flags are flying above the ice podium.
Update at 1:15 p.m. ET: The Pageantry Continues
With sounds of building and machinery in the background, Russia's organizers evoke the middle 20th century. Buildings begin to rise.
Before long, guys in black suits are driving red motorcycles across the ice – with people dressed in white standing astride their sidecars. The floor of the arena becomes a tapestry of newspaper headlines and messages in English and Cyrillic letters that (to this viewer, at least) echo constructivist art — clean lines, powerful imagery, message-driven.
Traditional music is playing — and a giant head moves across the stadium floor, along with a giant sickle held by a (disembodied) hand. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Then things settle down a bit, with a kind of ice island/podium riser put out onto the stadium floor, along with a flagpole carrying the Russian flag.
Below that area, people arrayed on the stadium floor are illuminated in the colors of the flag.
Update at 12:55 p.m. ET: Ballet At The Fisht
Dozens (hundreds?) of dancers have spread around the stadium floor, dressed in gowns and formal military uniforms that evoke Russia's past.
We don't know the classical music playing, but there's a lot of ballet talent on the floor of the stadium right now. A couple takes the spotlight, in what could also be a nod to the country's excellent history in ice dance events (Russia's top contenders for gold wear similar costumes).
Update at 12:45 p.m. ET: Sochi's Gaffe: Not An Olympic First
The "ring fail" at Sochi is taking over conversations online about the Opening Ceremony, especially as it comes at a time when organizers had hoped a rousing event would do away with the negative press the games have gotten over preparations and rights issues.
That was not to be. But from "peace doves burned alive" at the opener of the Seoul 1988 Olympics to the wrong flag being displayed during introductions at the London 2012 games, Sochi isn't alone in enduring embarrassing moments at the Olympics. A recent Yahoo! story compiled a few of them.
Update at 12:40 p.m. ET: Three Horses Gallop In The Sky
In the darkened stadium, three horses gallop across the interior, with a red/yellow disc representing the sun (?) trailing behind them.
Then, people in colorful costumes and giant beings begin to dance around on the stadium floor.
In a beautiful moment, a group of Russia's signature "onion dome" towers ascends high above the stadium floor.
Update at 12:30 p.m. ET: Too Cute Alert; Video Starts
Large and cute animals — a bear, a rabbit, a cat — are skiing and skating around, waving to the crowd. They're the official mascots, but they're also like huge, graceful, friendly robots. Which, maybe they are.
Now a video presentation begins, a film called "The Russian Odyssey," opening with stirring strings and a zoom-in from space to the Earth's surface. Then, guys on the planet's surface start to cut down trees. Before long, tough guys wearing heavy clothes are building things.
Update at 12:25 p.m. ET: Russians Are In The House
The Russian entourage has entered the stadium, and there are screams of joy. They wave, and the music shifts to a higher pitch, with loud stomping sounds.
Their entrance means we're about to embark on more pageantry. If you're still curious about the Cyrillic alphabet, PBS can help.
Update at 12:15 p.m. ET: About That Ring Fail
NPR's Tamara Keith, who's in the stadium, writes for our On the Road Tumblr:
"This could well become the symbol of these Olympic Games. It was supposed to be a breathtaking moment. Snow was falling from the ceiling (it was an incredible effect) and the giant glowing snowflakes at the center of the stadium were transforming into the five Olympic Rings.
"One of the snowflakes failed to open and suddenly it was breathtaking in an entirely different way, as if everyone realized at the same moment that something had gone wrong. It is already trending on Twitter. This isn't the kind of display Russian organizers had in mind."
NPR's Robert Smith says: "Totally sad. It was designed as the defining moment. And then it was."
Update at 12:05 p.m. ET: Who Goes First?
As many have noted, the national teams are entering the Olympic stadium in an order that can be confusing to Western audiences. The order in Sochi, as always, is alphabetical — in the language of the host country. There are two traditional exceptions: Greece goes first, and the host goes last.
Right now, for instance, Portugal is entering, followed by South Korea.
Update at 11:50 a.m. ET: The Athletes March
The mood in the stadium is buoyant as athletes begin to march out from a tunnel and around the stadium's floor. There is music playing that we must describe as poppy techno. But we warn you: We're experts in neither music nor horticulture.
The athletes are marching around the outskirts of the ice, which is bisected by a stripe in the center, from which they emerge to wave to the crowds.
Update at 11:40 a.m. ET: Everyone Gets A Medal
The ceremony will take on a bit of a Logan's Run feel for some of us (especially the science fiction nerds), when colored discs glow on the chests of the tens of thousands of people in attendance.
From NPR's Tamara Keith:
"Robert Smith and I are here inside Fisht Stadium. We've been given a 180-page media guide (half is in Russian) explaining the meaning behind the various elements of the ceremony. Everyone in the stadium will wear these nifty LED medals around our necks, which we're told will light up at different points in the ceremony."
Update at 11:30 a.m. ET: Putin, Dignitaries Introduced; Russia's Anthem
The big "reveal" of the Olympic rings has failed, at least in part. But the show moves on. Russian President Vladimir Putin is introduced, along with International Olympics Committee chief Thomas Bach.
The Russian national anthem is sung by a large choir. A montage of the Olympic flame traveling to Sochi is played. This is a teaser — the flame won't arrive til later.
Update at 11:25 a.m. ET: The Rings Appear — Four Of Them, At Least
Ice islands are floating around, and masses of people dressed in traditional winter outfits are walking across the ice and singing. Above them, the little girl sings.
The stadium's floor is covered by rolling puffs of artificial smoke — a very effective look. Snow, or something like it, is now falling in the arena.
Large snowflakes that had been suspended above them are morphing and resolving themselves into the five intertwined Olympic rings. But there's a misfire — one of the rings has not opened from its crystalline state into a smooth ring.
Update at 11:20 a.m. ET: Fly A Kite
A little girl in a white dress is standing alone on the ice, in the character of "Love"; she flies a kite. It then takes her into the air above the stadium's floor. The crowd oohs and aahs. She rises into a floating village landscape, as rock islands drift around and ethereal choral music plays.
Update at 11:15 a.m. ET: The Olympics Are Open
The first video montage is playing in the stadium, where 40,000 people are watching scenes of Russian culture and history matched with letters of the alphabet. This promises a steady pace, we think.
Our original post continues:
While security concerns have led to tens of thousands of police and military being positioned around the venues, and reporters have complained about conditions in Sochi, the epic spectacle that is the opening ceremony could wash away many of those worries. And it will also bring the athletes closer to competing in events they've been training for since the 2010 Vancouver Games.
As the games begin, many observers believe three countries will vie for the most medals in Sochi: the United States, Norway and Germany. But Canada also has an imposing team, and host Russia is intent on making its mark.
Here's some more background on these Winter Games:
Sochi By The Numbers
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