SOCHI, RUSSIA - It didn’t have the emotional impact of 1996 with Muhammad Ali’s shaking hands in Atlanta, coming from nowhere, stunning the world and lighting the Olympic torch.
But it had just about everything else. And more.
There was Vladislav Tretiak, lighting the torch; a fireworks show for the ages; a brilliantly colourful dramatic, occasionally creative re-enactment of Russian history — some of that rather liberal — all of it taking place in a stadium that took your breath away, if stadiums are indeed capable of that. All of it being stirring technologically and jaw-dropping on the warmest night ever for a Winter Olympics opening.
And from her seat in Section 516, Cheryl Simundson, mother of one of the Canada’s greatest athletes, laughed and cried and applauded wildly and some of that happened before the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics had even begun. She was that excited. And as the show went on, she got almost giddy.
“It was amazing,” she said at the end.
She and just about everybody else said that. What else could you say?
“It was absolutely amazing.”
Simundson — whose daughter Kaillie Humphries is a defending gold medal winner, a candidate almost every year for female athlete of the year — came to her third Olympics to watch Kaillie race in the women’s two-man bobsled. She had no intentions of going to the opening ceremony. She normally watches the event on television.
But the night before she got a tap on her shoulder from the folks at Proctor & Gamble, who run the successful “Thank You Mom’s” program. They offered her and her husband complimentary tickets for the ceremony.
“I couldn’t believe it when they told me,” she said. “Normally, we’d be gathered with our friends watching this.”
On Friday night, they were gathered with 35,000 or so of their newest friends to catch a little Russian chest-thumping, an artistic display from a country that has brought so much art to the world and at a cost that didn’t seem to matter to anyone not paying it.
That seemed the expensive theme on this night of pomp, circumstance — and a whole lot more pomp. You can never have enough pomp. There was so much to see, so many transitions and technological wizardly, so much of it impossible to describe. Television probably showed it nicely: Live, there was a spectacular combination of drama, colours, dance, Russian culture, pirates, industrial revolution and technology.
And the choice of Tretiak was perfect, especially for those of us who happen to be Canadian. He remains the athlete, the goalie, the hockey player we still most associate with Russia, even if it was a different Russia back in 1972. He connects past to present, present to past, and if this is the new country they are selling, they can do so while maintaining a sporting tradition of years gone by.
And if Tretiak and the opening ceremony in any way foreshadows what it to come over the next 17 days, the days could well be astounding.
For Simundson, surrounded in the stands by proud Russians, singing and dancing Russians, the pride was evident throughout the stands. The big moment for her was watching the Canadians march into the stadium led by flag-bearer Hayley Wickenheiser. When she took her seat in the Fisht Olympic Stadium, she noticed she was sitting under the only Canadian flag in the stadium. She texted her daughter to let her know that’s where she was in the stands. Kaillie texted back to say she would wave when she the flag.
Humphries wasn’t far behind the slow-walking Wickenheiser in line. She waved at the right time. Just about every Canadian athlete waved up to where the few parents were sitting, high above the grounds.
“I remember her first Olympics, in Turino, and the TV camera caught her waving and I started waving back at here,” Simundson said. “And I’m saying to myself, ‘I’m here, I’m here.’ And then you’re thinking, she’s on TV. She can’t see you. You get caught up in the moment.
“And to be here and see her and all these kids walking in, you can’t explain but it’s so emotional for us. It’s a pride thing, it’s a parent thing, it’s everything mixed into one.” And then she cried again.
It also was a magical night for Shanne Matthews, full of spirit and excitement, pride and sadness.
Like Simundson, she came to the Olympics to watch her daughter compete. And like Simundson, she was a fortunate recipient of Proctor & Gamble’s marketing prowess. There is, to be honest, a lot of marketing junk out there: This program for Olympic moms is extraordinarily generous. And like Simundson, Matthews, too, found out the night before that she would be attending the opening ceremony.
“I kind of freaked when they told me,” said Matthews, mother of snowboarder Roz Groenewoud, the X-Games champion. “I’m here. Roz isn’t even here. She’s with the team in France and they’re not arriving for a few days. But I feel like I’m representing her here. And that’s a pretty special feeling.”
Around Matthews’ neck was a piece of jewellery representative of Groenewoud’s close friend and mentor, Sarah Burke, who died two years ago after a snowboarding mishap. Burke’s legacy remains large in Canadian sporting circles. She will be mentioned often over the next two weeks.
“I’m here,” said Matthews, the mom from Calgary. “And I’ve got Sarah with me. I’ve always got Sarah with me. And Roz always has Sarah with her
“I have my Sarah necklace on ... She’s with us. She’s with all of us on the halfpipe team. She’s in my heart.”
And the reach of Sarah Burke is wide: It brings the Humphries parents and Matthews closer together. Matthews wears the necklace. The last two years, Humphries won a Sarah Burke Performance Award, for her excellence in sport.
“The connection has made us better friends,” said Simundson. “And it’s brought the athletes closer together.”
The athletes came closer together Friday night in the swiftest, most clever parade of athletes seen at an opening ceremony. The organizers brought the athletes in early — something not always done — so they could experience the show. The only seeming and, probably, inadvertent disrespect came when speeches were made by new IOC president Thomas Bach and others. Bach spoke about how much he admired and appreciated the athletes. Bach, who won a gold medal in the Montreal Olympics of 1976, said so with his back turned to the all the athletes.
That, and a Vancouver-like glitch of sorts — a snowflake that didn’t light up — were just about the only flaws on this night of Russian artistry. Unless you want to quibble about the Russian athletes leaving the stadium to the sounds of that famous Russian rapper, Kanye West.
But it is, after all, the new Russia. Or so they want us to believe.