The Sochi Network

Hosts Russia end Olympics far better than the way they started

Russian organisers of the Winter Games made a light-hearted joke at their own expense on Sunday when, at the closing ceremony, they referred back to the moment during the opening ceremony when one of the five Olympic rings failed to unfurl.

The technical hitch was an embarrassment for the hosts, although it was the only noticeable hiccup during an impressive spectacle to launch Russia's first Winter Games on February 7.

At the closing ceremony, while dancers in shimmering silver tops formed four perfect rings, one group remained in a tight formation, and only opened to complete the symbol when viewers at a packed Fisht Stadium had cheered the joke loudly.

The ceremony came with the hosts top of the medals table. Canada claimed the last, most coveted title of the Games by sweeping aside Sweden 3-0 to retain their men's hockey crown, but two more victories for Russia gave them an unassailable lead with 13 golds to Norway's 11.

At the Sanki Sliding Centre, Alexander Zubkov added the four-man bobsleigh crown to his two-man title, while on the cross-country skiing track, Alexander Legkov grabbed the 50 km race in a Russian medals sweep.

That win ensured Russia was the most successful nation at the Games, emulating the Canadians who topped the rankings on home turf four years earlier.

"People kept asking me whether I believed Russia could do as well as Canada did in Vancouver ... and I didn't believe it," 30-year-old Legkov told a news conference.

"Now this is our pride, it's wonderful. What could be better than ending the Olympics with a gold medal and helping Russia top the medal table?"

Underlining the sense of national pride, a packed Fisht Stadium erupted in cheers as the Russian team marched past in the athletes' parade during the closing ceremony.

Organisers will be delighted that athletic achievement has gone hand-in-hand with a generally well-run Games, so far untouched by violence at the hands of Islamist militants opposed to President Vladimir Putin and his pet project.

Voices of dissent over Russia's human rights record, particularly regarding legislation that critics say discriminates against gays, have occasionally crashed the party, but attention has largely focused on sport.

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International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said the Russian hosts had proved their critics wrong as he brought 17 days of action on snow and ice to an official close with his formal declaration.

"There is no higher compliment than to say on behalf of all participants and on behalf of all of my fellow Olympic athletes - these were the athletes' Games," Bach announced.

"I declare the 22nd Olympic Winter Games closed.

"In accordance with tradition, I call upon the youth of the world to assemble four years from now in Pyeongchang to celebrate with us the 23rd Olympic Winter Games."

Earlier, Bach had told reporters that the Sochi Olympics had comprehensively proven its critics wrong.

"We saw an excellent Games and what counts most is the opinions of the athletes and they were enormously satisfied," he said.

The Games had more than 2,800 athletes from 88 countries - both records - and featured 12 new events to attract younger fans and more broadcasters than ever before.

However, the Games have also seen six doping cases, five more than at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Early on Sunday Austrian cross-country skier Johannes Duerr, who placed eighth in the skiathlon, tested positive for performance-boosting EPO and was excluded from the Games, according to the Austrian Olympic Committee.

"There's nothing left for me than to apologise to everyone. To my family, my wife," Duerr told Austrian TV ORF at the airport as he was leaving.

Bach said the number of cases proved that the system of testing athletes was working.

"The number of cases for me is not really relevant. What is important is that we see that the system works," he said.

Bach spoke hours before the closing ceremony at the Fisht Stadium, one of several gleaming arenas built in Sochi that helped push the price tag for Russia's first Winter Games to an estimated $51 billion, a record for any Olympics.

Only time will tell if the project, on which Putin has staked much of his prestige, was worth it, as Russia faces the formidable challenge of turning Sochi and the surrounding areas into a year-round sports and entertainment hub.

Bach said Sochi had undergone an "amazing transformation" from somewhere that looked more like a "Stalinist-style sanatorium city" in the mid-1990s to an Olympic host city with state-of-the-art venues.

"It was terrible then. Seeing it 20 years after this transformation is amazing."

For now Russian officials are basking in the glory of an event they believe has helped them build bridges with the West, with which Moscow has had uneasy relations under Putin.

"The friendly faces, the warm Sochi sun and the glare of the Olympic gold have broken the ice of scepticism towards the new Russia," Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, also Putin's Olympics organiser, said at the weekend.

The medals tally was an unexpected bonus after Russia mustered just three golds in Vancouver four years ago to place 11th in the rankings.

The only regret for Russian fans was that the men's team progressed no further than the quarter-finals.

Victory gave Canada a sweep of the ice hockey gold medals for a second consecutive Olympics. The women stormed back from 2-0 down in the last four minutes against the United States to break American hearts on Thursday.

The world's gaze turned to the final act of the Feb. 7-23 Games, the closing ceremony, which organisers said was designed to show a softer side of Russia after the muscular, assertive opening spectacle at the same venue.

As if to prove their point, the show's producers deliberately replicated the embarrassing technical hitch from the opening show when one of five Olympic rings failed to open.

In similar fashion, while dancers in shimmering silver tops formed four perfect rings, one group remained in a tight formation, and only opened to complete the symbol when spectators had cheered the joke loudly.

Bach told reporters he would break with a decades-long tradition and avoid using a single, snappy phrase to sum up the Russia's first Winter Olympics.

"What I want is not to give my judgment," Bach said. "I want to convey the messages I heard from the athletes, National Olympic Committees, international federations, sponsors and broadcasters.

"This will be the purpose of the speech tonight. My English is not good enough to have that one adjective," he joked.

Reuters