By Brian Rank
SOCHI, Russia – In a spectacle of ice, fire and jubilation, the Sochi Winter Paralympics opened on Friday. The ceremony showcased Russia’s effort to prove it is renewed and ready to welcome the Paralympians after a history of intolerance toward people with disabilities.
The flawless ceremony that displayed Russia’s rich history and culture created an elated atmosphere inside Fisht Olympic Stadium, but could not keep out the uncomfortable realities building outside. The tense international climate around Putin’s involvement in Ukraine and Russia’s controversial stance on people who are gay or lesbian made their way into the proceedings in sometimes less-than-subtle words and actions.
But for most of the attendees, it was a night for celebrating the athletes from 45 nations that had made it this far and who will be competing for the 72 medals over the next week.
One of the most symbolically important moments of the night was when Russian Federation President, Vladimir Putin, entered the stadium and shook hands with International Paralympic Committee President, Sir Philip Craven. The greeting stood in stark contrast to the former Soviet Union’s refusal to host the Paralympic Games following the 1980 Olympics in Moscow claiming there were no people with disabilities in Russia.
Sir Craven recognized Russia’s progress since the Moscow Olympics in his speech during the ceremony.
“Tonight is a very special occasion, tonight is proof that what might not seem possible, is possible,” he said.
He later lauded Russia for making Sochi accessible to the athletes, and, in what seemed to be a veiled reference to the Russian Duma’s recent passage of a controversial law banning the spreading of ‘homosexual propaganda’ to children, said, “In the same way that the city of Sochi has built a barrier-free environment for athletes and officials to enjoy, I call upon all those who experience these Games to have barrier-free minds too.”
During a video played at the ceremony explaining the creation of the Paralympic movement by Ludwig Guttmann in 1948, the narrator, actor Ian McKellan, a gay man, stated that the Paralympics is about equality regardless of sexual orientation.
The main event of the night was the Parade of Nations, when the delegations from 45 nations entered the stadium bearing their country’s flag to cheers from the crowd. This year saw three nations competing for the first time at the Winter Paralympics: Brazil, which will host the 2016 summer Games; Turkey and Uzbekistan.
A somewhat surprising delegation present was Ukraine. A country that’s recently instated government is not recognized by Russia and to where Putin has allegedly sent troops to protect Russian-speaking citizens in the Crimea peninsula.
Ukraine has 23 athletes competing but chose to send just one athlete out to the Parade of Nations as the others apparently waited outside in protest. Nordic skier Michael Tkachenko entered the stadium to an eruption of cheers, his face stolid as he made his way through the arena. His movements were watched by President Putin who was overseeing the parade, a scenario not unlike the current situation in Ukraine.
Both the U.S. and U.K. did not send political delegations to the Games in protest of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. Their athletes are still attending.
Politics aside, the pageantry of the evening was something to be marveled.
The ceremony, titled ‘Breaking the Ice,’ was an elegant exposition of Russian art and culture. Dancers opened the ceremony with an intricately choreographed representation of the Russian Federation flag followed by a sampling of Tchaikovsky’s Dance of The Sugar Plum Fairy played on a glass organ accompanied by a crowd of young ballerinas.
Throughout the performances appeared representations of the Firebird, a mythical creature in Slavic folklore and one of the mascots of the winter Games. The shape of the Paralympic torch is modeled after a Firebird’s feather.
The crowning moment of the performance came after the Parade of Nations when an enormous model of an ice breaker ship lumbered into the stadium, topped by famed opera soprano and honorary IPC board member Maria Guleghina. Guleghina sang a “Cossack Lullaby” as the vessel floated across a frozen sea made of dancers bearing ice-like fragments.
The ceremony concluded in spectacular fashion as the Paralympic flame entered the stadium, carried by Paralympians to the Sochi Paralympic torch that was lit with a massive display of pyrotechnics.
The ceremonies kick off a week of games that continue from March 8 to 16. U.S. audiences can see the events on NBC, NBC Sports Network or streaming on www.nbcsports.com.
About the Author: Brian Rank is a member of the Wheelchair Sports Federation media team reporting on events at the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia. The all-volunteer media team consists of professional writers and photographers who are donating their time and expertise to showcase the athleticism of disabled U.S. athletes and highlight their world class achievements in adaptive sports. Some members of the media team are former Paralympians and wheelchair users/amputees. The Wheelchair Sports Federation is a non-profit organization that provides opportunities for wheelchair-using adults and youth to play sports recreationally and competitively.