Time for Sochi to focus on athletes

Team Ireland during the 'Parade of Nations' at last night's Sochi Games opening ceremony. Picture: INPHO/Ian McNichol

Yards from its improbable palm-fringed seafront and attended by a president whose seven-year, £31bn dream was starting to unfold before his steely eyes, Sochi welcomed the Winter Olympics with an opening ceremony of fittingly exorbitant scale in the Fisht Stadium last night.

From a giant inflatable version of St Basil’s Cathedral to a seven-foot-one world champion boxer, the outrageous notion of hosting a Winter Olympics in a former Stalinist holiday hot-spot was reflected in a suitably bombastic two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza.

It started with a pre-show segment involving the Choir of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs gyrating to a version of Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’, and peaked with the host nation’s athletes being soundtracked into the arena to the strains of a famous faux-lesbian pop anthem.

Sixteen million cubic feet of snow, stored for a year under isothermal blankets on the Caucasus slopes, were uncovered this week in order to ensure the essential alpine backdrop for the most tropical Winter Games of all time.

The 40,000-capacity Fisht Stadium, centrepiece of the sparkling Olympic Park on the banks of the Black Sea, cost $603million to build; loose change for a Games with a total budget even the most money-laden oligarchs might consider outlandish.

Such eye-popping exorbitance brought an end to a torch relay which stretched 65,000 kilometres across the world’s biggest country, from the untamed far east of Chukotka, plunging the depths of the world’s deepest lake and cresting the summit Europe’s highest peak and beyond, all the way to the International Space Station.

Appropriately making a fleeting cameo appearance as the traditional children’s character Uncle Stopya, the hulking figure of boxer Nikolai Valuev brought to mind the burly banks of black-clad military police who have been patrolling this virtually sealed-off region in recent months to guard against an unprecedented terrorist threat from Islamic militants.

Just over the summits of the peaks upon which sporting legends will be made lie the restive republics of Chechnya and Dagestan, their cracked lines on the maps a reminder that not all Russians are ready to embrace Putin’s vision.

The Utopian vision of a Games as untroubled as its budget was big had been shattered in a tortuous build-up, which included last month’s double-bombing in nearby Volgograd which claimed 34 lives, and the countless other threats which came to a host city straddling the boundary of what is: a war zone.

Money might buy mountainsides full of snow, but it cannot buy a wholesale acceptance of the concept of equal rights from any of the Games’ leading Russian dignitaries, nor finished fittings in hotel bathrooms, nor a fully functioning set of snowflakes-turned-Olympic rings due to a hydraulic malfunction in front of Putin’s eyes.

What it could buy was a set of purpose-built venues unanimously regarded as the best in the business and with it hope that the Games will be remembered for the faces in the paper rather than the name on the cheque.

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