Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared the Winter Olympics open at a superlative-filled opening ceremony in Sochi.
Putin said Friday, "I declare the 22nd Winter Olympic Games open."
More than with most games, these Olympics are closely tied to the leader of the host nation. Putin personally pushed for the right to stage them in this Black Sea summer resort and the nearby Caucasus Mountains slopes.
Russia spent $51 billion to transform Sochi into a winter sports paradise, in a project fraught with corruption, environmental abuses and fears of terrorism from nearby Chechnya and Dagestan. Hosting the Olympics is 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.
One of the highlights of opening ceremony night was a fanciful scene that 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. But the Russians also made sure to let the world see them with their hair down.
Another momentous part of the evening came when Russia gave its highest Olympic honor to two of its greatest champions.
Hockey legend Vladislav Tretiak and figure skater Irina Rodnina lit the Olympic flame to close 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 honors 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.
Finally, 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 goaltender and Rodnina ran out of the stadium, up the ramp and lit the flame together.
To cap off the memorable night, just after the sun set Thursday over the Caucasus Mountains and the seashore, Russian TV star Yana Churikova shouted to the crowd: "Welcome to the center of the universe!"
You can watch the opening ceremony tonight at 7:30 p.m. on WTHR on Channel 13.
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