Amid triumphs, an argument for tolerance
THE closing ceremony of the Sochi Games on Sunday night was a celebration of everything Russian, and everything that Russia does so well.
A pianist filled Fisht Olympic Stadium with Rachmaninoff as dozens of grand pianos floated around the stage. Ballet dancers twirled and leapt so expertly that they surely could have won a gold medal for their efforts. Massive photos of the country's best writers - Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky - were greeted with wild applause.
The entire night provided a showcase of Russia's many success stories, and, like it or not, hosting an Olympics is now among them.
Mr Dmitry Chernyshenko, the president of the Sochi organising committee, told me that he considered these Olympics "impeccable", and purely from an athletic standpoint, I have to agree.
As the two of us stood outside the main hockey arena, we looked out at the Olympic Park, which sits on the Black Sea, and marvelled at what Russia had built, turning a crumbling summer vacation spot filled with Stalin-era sanitariums into a compact collection of state-of-the-art sporting venues.
In a lot of ways, these games were better than Olympics past. The venues, the transportation, the setting, the security - all winning. Sure, soft snow and a few unfinished hotels upset some athletes and visitors, but most of the competitors raved.
So why might there be some reluctance to acknowledge that these games were so good? Maybe because the success of them also stands as a symbol of the power and influence of President Vladimir Putin.
Mr Putin lobbied Olympic officials to give these games to Sochi, which has long been his personal getaway. They did, and seven years later they were confronted with the makings of a grim sporting event.
Mr Putin's politics turned attention before the games to human rights violations instead of athletics. His disturbing record of quashing voices of dissent and his law criminalising the spread of "gay propaganda" to children made the Olympics difficult for many to enjoy without reservation.
But as the games went on, athletes were treated with respect, and none who wanted to express their opinions about politics were silenced, according to those I spoke with.
Mr Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee's new president, said in his closing ceremony speech: "By living together under one roof in the Olympic Village, you send a powerful message from Sochi to the world, a message of a society of peace, tolerance and respect."
From his office overlooking the Olympic Park, he had told me that he did his best to keep Putin's politics - and all politics - from marring the spirit of the competitions.
He basically said he was annoyed that he had to play referee between countries and leaders who kept trying to inject politics into these games.
While he did not name those world leaders, he said he did not "appreciate when governments sent political messages on the backs of their athletes".
"This is exactly what the IOC doesn't need," Mr Bach told me, referring to attempts to politicise the games.
But, if the games had not been held here, the uproar about Russia's anti-gay law - among other oppressive laws - would not have been heard by so many around the world.
Mr Putin got the Olympics, and his country thrived. A less endearing side of Russia was exposed in the process, which might prove to be the most important success of the games here.