Sochi Games Open as Snowflake Malfunction Mars High-Tech Glitz

The $45 billion Sochi Winter Olympics opened last night with an evening of Russian culture and high-tech pageantry marred by a malfunctioning snowflake.

Months of concern over security and unfinished facilities gave way to a celebration of ballet, classical music and Russian history in an opening ceremony that featured a giant ice-skating bear and horses flying over the Fisht Olympic Stadium.

The ceremony, which organizers said would be watched by 3 billion people worldwide, included portrayals of the czarist period and the Communist era. Music ranged from Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” to pop hits.

“It’s great when a country like Russia has a chance to have an event that kind of opens the world’s eyes to who their people are,” said skier Bode Miller, who will try to add to his American record of five Alpine skiing Olympic medals tomorrow in the men’s downhill.

Though the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee promised “the most technologically innovative ceremony ever,” there was an early glitch in the nearly three-hour extravaganza when one of five giant electronic snowflakes failed to transform into a circle, leaving the Olympic rings one short of their usual set.

It was a rare mistake on a night of light and sound that glimmered both on the floor of the 40,000-seat stadium and in massive displays that swept along tracks in the roof.

“It would be ridiculous for everybody to focus on one snowflake,” ceremony producer Konstantin Ernst said in a midnight news conference after the show. “It would be silly.”

Grim Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin had a grim look on his face as the snowflake failed to unfurl and hovered next to four open circles, and a spokesman for one of Russia’s biggest companies said the ceremony could have been much better.

“If the people that were dealing with organizing it and construction would have done it in time, it all would be much fancier,” Mikhail Leontyev, a spokesman for OAO Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company, said in an interview at the stadium.

Ernst said he needed five months to rehearse, but was limited to one month due to the stadium not being ready.

Putin is using the games, the most expensive in history, to transform a Soviet-era summer resort on the Black Sea into a year-round destination and highlight the country’s progress. The malfunctioning prop added to organizers’ headaches as visitors complain about incomplete hotels, half-built sidewalks and the treatment of stray dogs.

Unfinished Facilities

While journalists have been using social media to show the world photos of broken doors, brown water coming from faucets and unfinished bathrooms, athletes have been little affected, officials and participants said.

“My fifth time in Russia and this one is the best one,” Reece Derraugh, an equipment technician for the Canadian speed skating team, said before the ceremony. “Food 24 hours a day, beds are good, no troubles with security. Some of the door locks are shaky, but in general everything just fine.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were among about four dozen heads of state attending, though U.S. President Barack Obama stayed away. Instead, the delegation of American dignitaries included several gay members in a slap at Russia’s law banning public expressions of support for homosexuality.

Athlete Procession

Nordic skier Todd Lodwick carried the flag for the 230-athlete U.S. team, the largest American squad in Winter Olympics history. Nations such as Togo and Tonga made their Winter Games debut as 87 nations paraded into the stadium in a procession that lasted 52 minutes and ended with thunderous applause for the host nation.

After the Olympic rings were presented, Putin and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach entered and 240 volunteers, wearing glowing LEDs in their costumes, created the Russian flag in the center of the venue and a group of cosmonauts raised the flag as the national anthem played.

Tennis champion Maria Sharapova, who spent part of her childhood in Sochi before moving to the U.S., carried the Olympic torch into the stadium, completing its 65,000-kilometer (40,400-mile) relay.

The Olympic cauldron was lit by a pair of Olympic champions for the Soviet Union -- hockey goalie Vladislav Tretiak and figure skater Irina Rodnina. That set off a wild fireworks display inside and outside the stadium.

“We are now in the center of a dream that became reality,” Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee, said during the ceremony, adding that the goal was to “break down stereotypes” of Russia.

Terrorism Concerns

The ceremony took place against a backdrop of tight security, with 40,000 police and special services officers in the area.

Concerns about safety increased after two suicide bombings killed more than 30 people in December in the Russian town of Volgograd, less than 700 kilometers (430 miles) from the host city. Last night, a Pegasus Airlines plane landed in Istanbul after a man claiming to have a bomb demanded to be taken to Sochi.

The host city -- which has a population of about 400,000 -- has been criticized after hiring a pest control company to remove stray dogs from the streets, sometimes killing the animals.

IOC spokesman Mark Adams said stray dogs at the Olympic Park will be brought in and, if healthy, released elsewhere. If they are sick, they eventually might be put down.

“It would be absolutely wrong to say any healthy dog would be put down,” he said at a news conference.

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