SOCHI, RUSSIA - They're 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 one 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 national 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."
The world will be watching the entire Olympic machine in Sochi, and using what it sees to sit in judgment of Putin's Russia, where he has suffocated political opposition and ruled overtly or covertly for 15 years.
Is it a has-been superpower that can't keep the electricity on during a hockey game? Or a driver of the 21st century global economy? A diplomatic middleweight with ties to despots that wields influence only via its veto at the United Nations? Or a fairy tale of prosperous resurrection from the communist collapse and its brutal aftermath?
Who sits next to Putin on the VIP balcony may provide some clue. President Barack Obama and some other Western leaders are staying away, upset at a law that he championed barring homosexual "propaganda" aimed at minors that has been used to more widely discriminate against gays.
The opening ceremonies will gloss over the ugly bits as they hand over the games to the men and women who will spend the next two weeks challenging records and the limits of human ability. Some 6,000 athletes and team members, a record for the Winter Olympics, will come for 98 events, including the new slopestyle extreme skiing competition that began Thursday. More women will compete than ever before.
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