• Sochi 2014

Sochi Olympics open with grand ceremony

ESPN staff
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Irina Rodnina and Vladislav Tretyak light the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony in Sochi © Getty Images
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Russia gave its highest Olympic honour to two of its greatest champions.

Hockey legend Vladislav Tretiak and gymnast Irina Rodnina used the torch to light the Olympic cauldron to conclude the opening ceremony of the Sochi Games.

The identity of the torch lighter was the great mystery heading into the evening, as it is at many Olympics. Some even thought Russian President Vladimir Putin would do the honours himself.

The tension built in the closing moments as huge skeletal figurines representing all the Winter Games competitions lit up in the arena and Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake' was sprinkled in with a frenetic soundtrack.

Maria Sharapova carried the torch into the Fisht Olympic Stadium © Getty Images
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Tennis star Maria Sharapova jogged the torch into the arena and started one last relay that ended with the torch in Tretiak's hands. The goalie and Rodnina ran out of the stadium, up the ramp and lit the flame together.

Tretiak and Rodnina both won three gold medals for the USSR, and Tretiak also has a silver medal, won in 1980 in Lake Placid after the USSR lost to the United States in the 'Miracle on Ice'.

Music, dance and plenty of Russian bravado unleashed the ultimate achievement of Putin's Russia on Friday - a Winter Olympics to showcase the best athletes on ice and snow that the world has to offer.

The opening ceremony on the edge of the Black Sea and subsequent games are Russia's chance to tell its story of post-Soviet resurrection to the world, and dispel the anger, fear and suspicion that has marred the buildup to these most expensive Olympics ever.

Just after the sun set over the Caucasus Mountains and along the seashore just outside Fisht Stadium in the wet-paint-fresh Olympic Park, Russian TV star Yana Churikova shouted to a pre-show crowd still taking their seats: "Welcome to the centre of the universe!"

For the next two weeks, it certainly is for the 3,000 athletes who will compete in 98 events, more people and contests than ever at the Winter Games.

A satellite image of the Earth was projected on the floor of Fisht Stadium as they entered during the parade of nations, the map shifting so the athletes emerged from their own country. The athletes from the Cayman Islands arrived wearing shorts.

After Greece, traditionally first as the birthplace nation of Olympic competition, the teams marching into the stadium in Russian alphabetical order, putting the U.S. between Slovenia and Tajkistan.

One of the five Olympic rings failed to materialise in an opening scene © Getty Images
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Before the athletes' entrance, the ceremony hit an early bump when only four of the five Olympic Rings materialised in a wintry opening scene.

Five large, glowing snowflakes emerged from a whimsical opening meant to depict the four seasons. They floated to the top of Fisht arena and, one by one, started to morph into the rings. But only four joined together while the fifth remained a snowflake, apparently stuck behind the rest of them.

The five were supposed to join together and erupt in pyrotechnics to get the party started. Instead, they were eventually darkened and moved out of the arena, just as Putin was introduced.

The broken snowflake isn't the first opening ceremony blunder in Olympic history, of course. Vancouver, Sydney and Seoul all had issues with the torch lighting.

The real Cool Runnings

"When John Candy spoke to me, he said, 'Whoah, I'm playing a completely different role!'" © Getty Images

Sochi's opening ceremony is crafted as a celebration of Russia and is presenting Putin's version: a country with a rich and complex history emerging confidently from a rocky two decades and now capable of putting on a major international sports event.

The official ceremony opened with the Russian alphabet projected on the stadium floor, as a young girl told the story of her country's heroes and their globally renowned achievements: composer Tchaikovsky; artists Kandinsky, Chagall and Malevich; writers Tolstoy, Pushkin and Chekhov; Mendeleev and his periodic table; the first satellite Sputnik and Russia's space stations.

In a nod to Russia's long history, the national anthem was sung by the 600-year-old Sretensky Monastery Choir, a symbol of an increasing rapprochement between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church. The monastery is led by Tikhon Shevkunov, who is known to be Putin's confessor and one of the nation's most influential clergymen.

Every seat in Fisht Stadium had cloth bags that included a faux Olympic medal that they asked those in attendance to put around their necks. The medals lit up in several different colors, including blue, white and violet. The decorations sent shockwaves of light in sync with the upbeat techno music playing in the background as each nation was introduced.

The announcer paused for dramatic effect before the Russians were introduced, and the lights formed a red, white and blue waving flag as the crowd leaped to their feet and clapped along to a thumping beat that shook the building.

After the athletes had taken their seats in the crowd, a fanciful scene started with three giant, white, illuminated horses leading a parade of towering inflatables on to the stage. The balloons - all with the familiar bulbous tops of Russian cathedrals - bounced around the stage as children frolicked in a euphoric state of play.

It looked like a Russian version of Disney on Ice, and the thrilling scene wrapped with church bells ringing and the kids bounding off to loud cheers.

The night also included the ballet, classical music and odes to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy as expected.

The cauldron burns outside the Fisht Olympic Stadium © Getty Images
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This article originally appeared on ESPN.com

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