If the Sochi Olympics creative team had thrown nothing more than a third-rate Siberian band and a ballerina on stage, and canned the fireworks, the closing ceremonies would still have been judged a table-thumping, knee-slapping success for the host country.
The ceremonies' director really didn't need the flying boats, the circus stars and the lithe ballerinas. It just needed the Russian athletes. A medal surge late in the Games put them on top of the hardware heap – resoundingly so – with 13 golds and 33 medals overall.
Russia wasn't supposed to humble the United States, Norway and Canada on the medal count, but it did. Its success was doubly sweet after the fiasco at the Vancouver Olympics, where its mere three golds put Russia's true talent at the time – reverse alchemy – on global display.
Russia's success was duly celebrated early in the closing ceremony – at the 10-minute mark. With all TV cameras trained on the clapping Russian president Vladimir Putin, in a blue suit, standing next to IOC president Thomas Bach, an enormous Russian flag was carried onto the vast stage of the Fisht Olympic stadium. There was wild applause, followed by the Russian national anthem, sung in rousing form by the 1,000 – yes 1,000 – members of the Pan-Russian children's choir. Not long later, Russia exploited its Olympic success to the hilt by presenting the medals to the winners of the men's and women's endurance cross-country race in the middle of the stadium, ensuring they were seen by global TV audience of hundreds of millions. Inconveniently, Norway swept the women's 30km race.
Ever so conveniently, all three medals of the 50km men's race went to Russians, with Alexander Legkov bowing for the gold. This is a medal the Russian's desperately wanted and was all the sweeter in the absence of Russian gold in hockey. The applause the trio of Russian medalists was almost deafening.
Of course, the closing ceremony would have gone from Russian triumph to Russian ecstasy had Russia finished the games with hockey gold, to the point that Putin would have declared 100 days of Roman-style Bacchanlia. But it didn't – the Big Red Machine succumbed to the scrappy Finns on Feb. 19. But it was a short-lived humiliation, for the Russian medal foundry kept spitting out medals like gold-plated Ladas. The two glam golds on Sunday – in four-man bobsleigh and the men's cross country – were a fine way to cap off the Games, never mind Finland.
The closing ceremonies were somewhat of an improvement on the plodding opening version, which bogged down in the mud of the athletes' parade smack in the middle of the show; traditionally, the athletes come out at the end.
Creative director Konstantin Ernst and his closing ceremonies artistic director, Italy's Daniele Finzi Pasca, who stick-handled the Turin 2006 close and created the Cirque du Soleil's Corteo extravaganza, went for the same gimmick. But this time, the mid-show athletes' parade worked because the audience at the Fisht Olympic stadium were there to celebrate their new sporting heroes – dozens of them.
By Sunday evening, the comical images of the side-by-side toilets, the tales of dire food and the crisis in Ukraine, which Putin is trying to steer into the imperial Russian fold, had been forgotten. This was the Russian athletes' shining moment, and Putin's moment to gloat about a Games that romped along with remarkably few glitches. Nothing went tragically wrong, nothing blew up. The Games were well organized, as they should have been for their US$50-billion price-tag.
Putin did not speak at the closing ceremony – host country leaders never do at such events – but Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi Organizing Committee, seemed to take the words out of Putin's mouth. "This is the new face of Russia," he said.
If the audience members were thrilled by the winning Russian athletes, they and the international viewers were soothed by the gentler aspects of Pasca's and Ernst's show. This was Russia as Westerners know it best; earlier in the day, they had promised a "look at [Russian] culture through the eye of European."
Viewers were treated to fine performance by the dancers of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky ballets, to the music of composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. The homage to Russia's great authors – among them Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pushkin, Golgol – was a visual treat. It featured a vortex of book pages, flying through the stadium, after a library was discovered by children.
Up next was a full circus, complete with big red and white tent, clowns and jugglers. With more than 400 actors and performers, the stage was alive with energy.
To be sure, not all of it worked. Some parts were bland and the modern Russian music was at points painful. The floating upside down village was a gimmick too far and the handover ceremony to PyeongChang, the host city for the 2018 Winter Olympics, went on too long. But overall, it moved faster than the opening ceremonies.
What the stadium needed at that point was not a tribute to city that many audience members could not locate on a map, but a rollicking rock and roll party, like the closing ceremony of the London games two years ago, which got everyone dancing in the aisles as Britain celebrated its own sporting success. Still, Putin and the 40,000 people in the audience, the vast majority of them Russians went away smiling. Russia had redeemed itself on the sporting front and had proved that it could host a near flawless Olympics.
Editor's Note: The original version of this article incorrectly identified Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. This online version has been corrected.