The Rio 2016 ceremonies chief tells Around the Rings that the 2014 Sochi Opening Ceremony was a "benchmark for any person in love with show business."
Marco Balich says the Friday night extravaganza "matched Beijing in terms of effort and power."
"It was probably the grandest winter ceremony ever, if not the grandest ceremony ever," says Balich, who will get his own turn in Sochi with the Closing Ceremony on Feb. 23 and both Paralympic events.
Beijing set the recent standard for mind-blowing ceremonies in 2008, while the 1980 Moscow Games produced the first spectacle.
With a nod to the Moscow ceremony, Sochi creative director Konstantin Ernst staged a nearly 3-hour event titled, "Dreams of Russia."
It showcased the history and culture of the past with cutting-edge technology. A locomotive, a troika of horses, and a man and woman with the Soviet hammer and sickle were among the objects floating across the sky within Fisht Stadium.
On the ground, Peter the Great’s ship navigated 3D waves, huge figures of the three mascots had the most prominent role of any mascot since Misha shed a tear in Moscow, a procession of onion domes built Red Square, and War and Peace-era Russians were invited to a fabulous ball. Ballet dancers also performed a piece of Swan Lake near the shores of the Black Sea.
There were a few empty seats in the 40,000-seat stadium. Volunteers were asked to queue in regular clothes outside the stadium to fill in gaps.
Balich says every country wants to project an image and Russia made a "very muscular statement. It’s an impeccable display of the state-of-the-art."
The ceremony had an early glitch, though, when five large, bright snowflakes were supposed to transform into the five Olympic Rings. Like some of the hotels in the days before the Games, the fifth ring failed to open.
Later in the show, hockey players, skiers, skaters, and other winter sports athletes were suspended in the air like constellations. They would light up, then go dark. One snowboarder refused to light up for the finale.
Although the ring failure was mocked by social media, Vancouver had a much bigger technical problem when one of the arms of its cauldron would not rise from the ground.
The lighting of the Sochi cauldron went off without a hitch. Tennis star Maria Sharapova, pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, wrestler Alexander Karelin, and rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva were torchbearers in the stadium. Kabaeva has been linked romantically to Russian President Vladimir Putin and was rumored to be the final torchbearer.
But there were two more. The four summer athletes handed off to two stars of the Winter Games: three-time pairs figure skating gold medalist Irina Rodnina and Vladislav Tretiak, who won three hockey gold medals as a goaltender.
They ran out of the stadium and across the plaza, where they lit a small cauldron. The flame then hopped like a fountain to the bigger one.
Balich was impressed by some of the innovations made by Sochi. For the Parade of Nations, the earth as seen from space was projected onto the floor. Each country was then highlighted and its athletes emerged from a ramp below the floor.
"I think this is a very new thing that we’re sure will be taken into consideration for the next ceremonies to come," he said.
The athletes also came out very early – about 20 minutes into the ceremony for the first country -- so they could see most of the show.
However, as they came up the ramp, they were directed to either the left or the right. That meant they only went around half of the stadium, depriving some spectators on the other side of a good view of the athletes from their country.
It was 43 degrees Fahrenheit when the show formally began at 20:14 military time, making the Sochi 2014 event probably the warmest Opening Ceremony held outdoors.
By the time the athletes had finished their nearly one-hour parade, it was 37 degrees under the translucent polycarbonate roof.
The ceremony was also notable for its lack of international stars. Anna Netrebko, the Russian soprano who performed the Olympic anthem, was the most well-known of the seven headliners. The other six were from ballet.
When Putin and IOC President Thomas Bach were introduced early in the ceremony, they were partially obscured by smoke rising from the ground.
However, the world saw a robust Bach when he delivered his speech. The usually even-keeled president showed great energy and charisma as he implored the crowd to embrace human diversity and respect the athletes’ Olympic message of good will, tolerance, excellence, and peace.
"Olympic Games are always about building bridges to bring people together," he said. "They are never about erecting walls to keep people apart."
He added, "Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful, direct political dialogue and not on the backs of these athletes."
Written by Karen Rosen in Sochi
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