Glory And Glitches At Sochi Opening Ceremonies

The 2014 Winter Olympics officially opened Friday with a ceremony celebrating Russian culture and introducing Olympic athletes from around the world. NPR's Robert Smith was at the ceremony in Sochi and joins us to recount the pomp and pitfalls on display.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The Olympic Games have officially begun in Sochi, Russia. The opening ceremony today was filled with ballet dancers, Russian icons and at least one skating bear. OK, it was a fake bear mascot. 40,000 people watched the spectacle at Fisht, and the event was not without its glitches. NPR's Robert Smith joins us now from Sochi to tell us about it. Hey, Robert.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: (Speaking foreign language).

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: After two and a half hours of opening ceremony, I think I can speak Russian.

BLOCK: You can say that again. OK, well opening Olympic ceremonies, opening ceremonies, there's always this chance for countries, host countries to tell a story about themselves. So what was the Russian story today?

SMITH: Well, I think they were trying to say, you know, we are not this stereotype you might have of the serious Russian, you know, dull, gloomy, furry hats, drinking vodka. I mean, when we heard that this was going to go two and a half, three hours of Russian history, I mean you can imagine if you took Russian history in college, you're just like oh, this is going to be a slog, really.

But they really presented it in a fun, lighthearted way. There was a journey of a young girl through a very light version of Russian history. There was no revolution, no Stalin, no gulags of course.

BLOCK: I was wondering about that. They bypassed that entirely?

SMITH: You know, every country bypasses the bad parts, right? Instead it was Peter the Great and a ballroom scene from Tolstoy's "War and Peace," Russian folk tales. And there was this amazing scene of crazy Russian constructivism. It was kind of a Cirque du Soleil meets the factory. It was crazy.

I mean it wasn't like London. It wasn't funny. It wasn't filled with famous pop stars. But it was playful, I'd say.

CORNISH: And we mentioned glitches. One of them was that one of the Olympic rings failed to light. Is that right?

SMITH: It was really sad, I've got to say, in the crowd because it was supposed to be this dramatic moment. In fact they handed us just at the last minute a piece of paper describing what was going to happen. And it was the end of the first act, and there was this giant snowstorm that was inside the stadium and fog, and there were these giant snowflakes, five of them, dancing around in the sky.

And they were supposed to morph into the five Olympic rings, and fireworks were supposed to go out. But one of them didn't. So at the big moment there were four rings and a tiny, sad little snowflake. And there was just silence in the crowd, and they didn't put off the fireworks. And, I mean, I just felt bad for them because already, I mean, within seconds the Internet started to mock the Russians.

And I'm sure that they worry that this is going to be a symbol of their games, right, a sad little snowflake floating in the sky.

BLOCK: I guess we should have put a spoiler alert on this, right? For folks watching at home, waiting for that big moment, we have just, you know, cast a whole bunch of cold water on that.

SMITH: You know, I've got to say, I've got to say it is all over Twitter. It is all over the Internet.

BLOCK: Yeah, hard to avoid.

SMITH: Because I mean, it's the sad thing about these games. I mean, people have given the Russians a really hard time coming up to them. And every country gets a hard time before the Olympics. They say this is going to fail, this is going to fail. And something always goes wrong in the opening ceremony. This one may end up being a symbol, but, you know, maybe not.

If the games, you know, end up flourishing, it'll be sort of like the rest of the opening ceremonies, which by the way went perfectly and was fun and inspiring and all of that.

CORNISH: You've been out in the cold with the crowd there, Robert. What's the mood? What are people telling you?

SMITH: Well, you know, I ended up being herded together with a bunch of the athletes, and I wanted to talk to them. Oh, you know, what was your favorite part? You know, was it this part of Russian history? Was it this fireworks? Was it this dancing? And they looked at me like I was crazy, like no, our favorite part was when we get to walk into an Olympic stadium as athletes in an Olympic Games.

And of course, like, this is what it's really all about. They walk out. They're about to compete, some of them their first Olympics, some of them multiple Olympics, but they say it just never gets old.

BLOCK: OK, Robert, thanks so much. Enjoy the rest.

SMITH: You're welcome, (speaking foreign language).

BLOCK: That's NPR's Robert Smith at the Winter Olympic in Sochi, Russia.

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