The 2014 Winter Olympics opened with many worldwide wondering whether Russia had the infrastructure in place to handle such a marquee event. Two weeks later, with the initial hitches giving way to a scintillating stretch of athletic performance, you can forgive everyone in Sochi if they'd want to let loose and celebrate.
The closing ceremony at Fisht Stadium on Sunday allowed the athletes and organizers to do just that. Much like the opening event two weeks prior, it is a purposely over-the-top celebration designed to highlight the best and brightest of all participating countries. Athletes are shuttled in and out for their moments in the sun, winners are recognized one more time and all the while a full-fledged theatre production goes on in the background.
Everything is also far less earnest than the opening ceremony. With the tension subsided from the events and athletes having spent the last two-plus weeks huddled closely together, the atmosphere is far more congenial and fun.
Still, watching Sunday's event, you never once forgot you were watching an Olympic event. The high-quality production mixed uptempo EDM stylings in vogue across Europe and the United States, along with hallmarks of stage theatre and downtempo earnestness.
The proceedings take an intricate level of planning, some good luck and a whole lot of patience from the fans in attendance. Any hours-long event can tend to drag after a while, so there is a constant cat-and-mouse game being played with the crowd, whereby the producers of the ceremony have to both entertain and recognize the athletes who worked so hard to get to this stage.
Much like they did for the opening ceremony, the Russians proved their theatrical wares on Sunday. Here's a look at some of the best moments and performers from Sochi.
Best Highlights from Closing Ceremony
Production Pokes Fun at Opening Ceremony Gaffe
Give credit to the organizers. For all the criticism they have taken before and during these Games—some of which was justified, some of which was not—there were few expressions of frustration. It had to be difficult at times, with more than seven years of preparations in place, to see things go awry and the world to look on with a skeptical eye.
This was supposed to be a coronation of a new Russia, one equipped with the proper international firepower to pull it off. With the ceremony closing, though, it seems folks in Sochi were ready to have a sense of humor about the derision—at least one part of it.
In the ceremony's opening number, a sterling, well-skated theatrical piece, the skaters attempted to form the Olympic rings. Only, much like the opening ceremony, one of the rings just wouldn't work. As Deadspin points out, though, this time the "mistake" was entirely intentional:
Despite its inherent weirdness, the Olympics isn't typically a place where folks go to get their Louis CK kick. To see Russia embracing a moment in production it could have swept under the rug—and actually did for some—was welcome and amusing.
Hilarity, always and forever, is a good thing at the Olympics.
Athletes Receive Their Final Moment in the Sun
For all the focus elsewhere, the closing ceremony should realistically be about just one thing: the athletes. This won't be the first or last space to highlight the strange lives of Olympic athletes.
In one moment, they are representing an entire country and performing before millions across the world. The next, they're back to relative anonymity.
A majority of these participants compete in sports without major financial backing or international intrigue. These are the two weeks where they become heroes in their home countries, landing endorsements and praise for their feats that will last for four more years—right until the next Olympic cycle.
So it's only right that each athlete gets to stand one more time before the cheering crowd. Alan Abrahamson, helping cover the Games for NBC, sent out an Instagram image of the athletes making their way out to the Fisht Stadium ice:
Denis Matsuev Leads Sterling Piano Performance
The performance side of things is one place where Sochi consistently knocked it out of the park. The music, highlighted by Daft Punk when the athletes came out to applause, was appropriate at all points for the mood. It was obvious from the outset that whoever was in charge of this production had quite a varied and interesting background.
One of the highlights—especially for the Russian audience—was the appearance of Denis Matsuev. A classical pianist renowned worldwide for his orchestral work in Russia and notable solo releases, Matsuev was the highlight of a piano precession.
Matsuev played Rachmaninoff’s "Piano Concert No. 2" and worked solo for a short period, before the stage opened to 62 pianos filling almost the entire ice. It was an excellent performance from Matsuev—who was typically flawless throughout. The Sochi 2014 Twitter feed sent out a picture of the performance:
62 piano circling in a fantastic dance to the music of Rachmaninov. The main Dj is Denis Matsuev! pic.twitter.com/4LQWzQI4uG— Sochi 2014 (@Sochi2014) February 23, 2014
In all, there were 248 different performers working with the 62 pianos. With an insane level of choreography needed to pull off the performance, only a tip of the cap can be the proper reaction.
Some Circus, Some Ballet and One Huge Chandelier
After Matsuev and his fellow pianists left the stage, the more theatrical side of Russian culture began to take the focus. The opening to the ceremony—featuring children, a boat and a whole lot of backstory for such a short portion of the proceedings—were nothing compared to the love of ballet and circus shown later on.
But that's all burying the lede. The performances were overshadowed—literally and figuratively—by one of the largest chandeliers you will ever see. American ice dancer Alex Shibutani sent out perhaps the only picture that can do it justice:
The chandelier provided the background for an homage to Russian culture, going through ballet, literature, art and, of course, the circus.
Because Russian culture is so closely associated with circus, it will receive the most attention. But the ballet homage was particularly effective. Everything from the costumes to the majesty of the performers was on point, and the crowd of course responded with overwhelming applause. Johnny Quinn, an American bobsledder, was one of many to tweet out their positive reaction to the performance:
The Russian ballet with a phenomenal performance! pic.twitter.com/QXjQaLawZY— Johnny Quinn (@JohnnyQuinnUSA) February 23, 2014
The ballet gave way to a literature appreciation, with treasured Russian writers having their faces displayed during a somber number. And then, of course, it was circus time:
If there is one takeaway from the closing ceremony, it's that Russians know their culture and can sure throw a party. With the sense of humor shown in the ring portion and the excitement of the circus, it's safe to say folks left satisfied with the show.
Olympic Flag Passed to Pyeongchang
The great (and somewhat sobering) thing about the Olympics is that it doesn't sleep. Even when the international attention has subsided, the preparations are constantly ongoing for the next Olympics. Athletes planning to return four years from now will take a quick breather, but soon it's on to whatever training and qualifying regimen they need to begin.
It's also time for a new nation and city to take the responsibility for carrying the Olympic torch. While the 2016 Games in Rio are upcoming, the next Winter Olympics belongs to Pyeongchang, South Korea. It will be the second Olympic Games hosted by South Korea, the other being Seoul in 1988.
As is tradition in the closing ceremonies, Sochi abdicated its responsibility as Olympic host by handing the Games' flag over to the new host. BBC's Twitter feed captured one of the most important moments of the event live:
That moment gave way to IOC President Thomas Bach, who gave a postmortem on how the governing body viewed the Sochi Games. Bach addressed numerous topics in his speech, praising the transformation the city underwent and thanking the Russian people for their hospitality. It's hard to imagine any IOC president being negative in his speech, but the way Bach complimented Sochi seemed to indicate a staunch co-signing of these Games:
Criticism of Russia was also addressed—though not in so many words. Bach avoided outwardly discussing the restrictive laws against non-traditional relationships or the construction problems that plagued the first couple days in Sochi. Instead, he encouraged those watching at home to view Russia with an "open mind," per Kerry Gillespie of the Toronto Star:
IOC president Thomas Bach talking about the "strong civil society in Russia" and urging people to see if with an "open mind." #Sochi2014— Kerry Gillespie (@kerry_gillespie) February 23, 2014
Bach then officially closed the Games, with Pyeongchang now officially slated as the host country for the Winter Olympics.
Oh, and on a totally related note, the supposedly cuddly but entirely frightening bear mascot was back for one last time. Lo and behold, he was cuddly after all, proving so by crying as the Olympic torch went out:
If you're looking for a sequence that encapsulates the Sochi Games, maybe that's it. Once the initial scariness subsided, these Winter Games were like any other. The athletes came, performed on the biggest stage of their lives and did so without incident or imprisonment.
There were a few glitches here and there, but that tends to happen with every Olympics. For the competitors and fans, these two weeks were some of the best sporting moments of their lives. And that's what the Olympics is all about.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: