Russia on Sunday laid on a glittering closing ceremony in Sochi to draw the curtain on the Winter Paralympic Games hailed as the “best ever,” but held under the long shadow of the unrest in Crimea.
The ceremony took place on the same day as, just across the Black Sea from Sochi, Crimea voted to secede from the Ukraine in a controversial referendum.
The closing ceremony at the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi marked the end of the elite sporting event that began on Feb. 7 as the fire in the Olympic cauldron was extinguished and the flag given to the next Winter Olympic hosts Pyeongchang in South Korea, bringing to a close a journey that began in 2007 when Russian President Vladimir Putin won the right to host the Winter Games.
Putin, who spearheaded the bid to host the Olympic Winter Games and the Winter Paralympic Games, was present in the VIP stands at the closing ceremony, but — in line with protocol — did not make any comment.
The hosts basked in the glory of easily topping the medals table with 30 golds, well ahead of second-placed Germany, who won nine. Ukraine also performed strongly, coming fourth with five golds.
In a huge compliment to Russia, International Paralympic Committee resident Sir Philip Craven closed the Games by declaring them the “best Paralympic Winter Games ever.”
He said that the Paralympic spirit had “united and infected us all in Sochi” and the Games were so special that “no one wants them to end.”
Craven added that with the Paralympics, Sochi had been “transformed into a barrier-free city” and had become a model for the rest of Russia.
“Do you sense a greater degree of liberation? Well I do, I can tell you,” he said to cheers from the crowd.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak in his speech said that both the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi “will long stay in the hearts of people all over the planet.”
“We prepared seven long years for this spectacle and all our obligations were fulfilled right on time,” Kozak said. “The time has come to say goodbye, but we will meet again. [You are always] Welcome in Russia.”
The closing ceremony began with a dazzling choreographed routine of wheelchairs as dancers soared on wires high above and continued with dancers defying disabilities to perform astonishing routines like Cossack dances in an out of wheelchairs.
Perhaps the biggest highlight came when Russian Paralympic star Alexei Chuvashev rose from his wheelchair to climb a pole high above the stadium’s field.
Chuvashev lost both his legs during an operation against militants in Chechnya in 2008, but has overcome the loss to become a top Paralympic rower, winning bronze at London 2012 in adaptive rowing.
Using his vast upper body strength, he climbed the pole toward vast letters hung above the stadium spelling the word: “Impossible.” When he reached his destination, Chuvashev nudged an apostrophe into position to make the word read: “I’m possible.”
The eclectic closing ceremony mixed rock music, images inspired by artists like Russian abstract master Wassily Kandinsky and classic tracks by the likes of Sergei Prokofiev.
Yet the Games never escaped the shadow of the crises in Ukraine, with Ukrainian athletes covering their medals with the palms of their hands at award ceremonies in a symbolic, but low-key protest at Russia’s incursion into Crimea.
Putin had earlier thanked sporting officials “for keeping the Paralympics away from politics,” while Kozak said that both Winter Games had showed off a new “modern Russia.”
Despite Moscow’s success in staging the sporting events, for many, these Games will always be linked with the controversy over Russia’s actions in the Ukraine.