SOCHI, Russia — A wild idea, really. To gather women and men from all over the globe to play games. To skate. To ski. To set aside all differences. Idealism running free for two weeks. The Olympics are a wonderful and forever fragile quest to mend a tattered world.
A gleeful crowd from across the world walked into Olympic Park on this sunny, warm Russian night. In the middle of this joyous throng, I stood for a moment savoring the sunset with a trio of happy Americans, who wondered what surprises were in store on this night's opening ceremony.
And yet ...
We all know these Games might be invaded by sinister surprises, too. Since terrorists polluted the 1972 Munich Games and the 1996 Atlanta Games, fear is a constant invader to our Games. The world's worst impulses crashed into our best intentions, and we'll never quite recover from the shock. We know a small angry group, or even just one enraged person, can devastate these Games.
I don't talk about this fear in the abstract. I've wandered the streets of Sochi for days, enjoying views of the Black Sea and the as-magnificent-as-anything-in-Colorado mountains, but an ever-present dread always hovers. I remember the words spoken by those who love me back home. Be vigilant, they said. Keep your head down. Please, make sure you come back.
Chechnyan terrorists already splattered blood on these Games when they blew up buses and slaughtered three dozen innocents. The terrorists have reason for their rage. They feel helpless. They feel rage in the aftermath of a long, savage struggle with their Russian conquerors. They seek their version of justice.
They are scary.
I hope idealism wins, again, at these Games. When I traveled to Greece for the 2004 Games, there were threats and concerns and dread. Several friends stayed in America, choosing safety over a sports adventure.
But here's the good news: Optimists have been the winners in all the Olympics of the 21st century. Let's all pray their win streak lingers at these Games.
The opening ceremony is, in its essence, a night of propaganda. Russia paid $50 billion, give or take a billion or two, to stage the Games. All this money created a world-class ski resort and an impressive rail line from the shores of the Black Sea to the mountains.
To top it off, the cash gave Russia a chance to strut in front of much of the world. At the 2012 London Games, director Danny Boyle constructed a four-hour extravaganza with a simple central message:
Wow, the English are really amazing.
Boyle was not attempting anything radical. The Chinese followed a similar theme in 2008.
The Russians stuck to this familiar script, declining to embrace humility. We gave you Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Kandinsky and Eisenstein and the Sputnik satellite, this roaring, overstated ceremony announced. Top that, world.
But these Games are not about Russia. Not at their core. The Games are about a farfetched and enticing idea that people from all over the world escape strife and play games for two weeks.
Sure, there is plentiful reason for fear. Apprehension rumbles in your heart. It rumbles in mine, too.
Still, there is reason for hope. Amid the fireworks and the dancers and the fake cattle and horses floating through the air and the biggest Teddy Bear ever seen, the idealism of the Games roared.
Oh, what a wild idea. Gathering together to play games, despite our troubles, despite our differences.
Let the Games begin, and let's hope the optimists find a way to win.