Powerful show officially opens Games

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SOCHI, Russia -- Spoiler alert for those waiting to see Friday night's tape delay of the opening ceremonies: The sweaters worn by the U.S. athletes will not win any awards on "Fashion Police." The cauldron will be lit by a famous Russian athlete. Russian president Vladimir Putin keeps his shirt on. And the only explosions are fireworks.

All in all, the 2014 Winter Games opened with a gold-medal performance Friday, filled with snowflakes (albeit artificial), ballet, a Russian history lesson and a relatively interesting speech by new International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach.

IOC presidents generally have the same effect as Ambien during speeches, but in addition to the usual platitudes, Bach used his moment to make a statement clearly directed at the controversial anti-gay propaganda law that Putin signed into effect last year.

"The universal Olympic rules apply to each and every athlete -- no matter where you come from or what your background is," Bach said. "You are living together in the Olympic Village. You will celebrate victory with dignity and accept defeat with dignity. You are bringing the Olympic values to life. ...

"Yes, it is possible -- even as competitors -- to live together under one roof in harmony, with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason."

Putin might not have appreciated that dig, but he had to surely love the rest of the night.

Opening ceremonies are pretty much required by the Olympic charter to be garishly over the top, and Friday's certainly had its moments -- what with Soviet-era sedans racing across the stadium floor (without stalling!) and four-story-tall mascots who really should have been taken to drug testing immediately after the show.

But for the most part, the production was artistic and powerful, filled with Russia's rich history and achievements in literature, dance and music. You'll see for yourself, but there were salutes to Tolstoy's "War and Peace," ballet dancers performing Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" and an imaginatively entertaining staging of Moscow's rise as a city.

And perhaps, most impressively, it was all over in three hours.

The only glitch was early on when one of five brilliant, large snowflakes failed to change into a fifth Olympic ring. But hey, $51 billion only covers so much. (Though I would not like to be the engineer responsible for that hiccup.)

This is the first Olympics held on Russian soil since the 1980 Games in Moscow that the U.S. boycotted. Putin has made these Olympics a personal mission to showcase his country and his reign, and also turn Sochi into a worldwide destination, clearly sparing no expense to achieve this objective. As Sochi 2014 president Dmitry Chernyshenko said, "The Sochi Games are our chance to show the entire world the best that our country is proud of, our hospitality, our traditions, our Russia."

But with all the controversy over the cost of the Games, the terrorist threats and the anti-gay bill, the pressure is on.

Indeed, the specter of terrorism that has commanded so much focus could not be ignored during the ceremonies. Midway through the spectacle, news reports surfaced that a man claiming he had bomb tried to hijack a flight from Turkey and direct it to Sochi.

Fortunately, he failed and the opening ceremonies went off peacefully. They ended with the lighting of the cauldron by three-time gold medalist pairs skater Irina Rodnina and Vladislav Tretiak, who won three gold medals in hockey.

Tretiak also lost a rather well-known Olympic game when the United States beat the Soviets in the 1980 "Miracle on Ice." That game captivated our country at a time when spirits were low and the Cold War was near its most frigid. It helped spur the "U-S-A! U-S-A!" chants that are so familiar today and remains perhaps the most famous American sporting moment.

We shall see whether there are other epic performances when the U.S. finally competes in Russia. But, as Bach said, the Olympics can be a powerful, unifying force.

"There is nothing more exciting than walking hand-in-hand with my teammates in the Olympic opening ceremony," U.S. curler Debbie McCormick said. "My heart is filled with stars and stripes, joy and excitement."

The cauldron is lit. The Games have started. It is now officially time to stop complaining about Spartan accommodations, stray dogs and urine-colored water (or the U.S. sweaters). Now is the time to focus on the Olympics, the athletes and their performances.

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