SOCHI, Russia -- Russia gave its highest Olympic honor to two of its greatest champions.
Hockey legend Vladislav Tretiak and figure skater Irina Rodnina used the torch to light the Olympic cauldron Friday and conclude the opening ceremony of the Sochi Games.
The identity of the cauldron lighter was the great mystery heading into the evening, as it is at many Olympics. Some even thought Russian President Vladimir Putin would do the honors.
The tension built in the closing moments as huge skeletal figurines representing all the Winter Games competitions lit up in the stadium and Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" was sprinkled in with a frenetic soundtrack.
Tennis star Maria Sharapova jogged the torch into the arena and started one last relay that ended with the torch in Tretiak's hands. The goaltender and Rodnina ran out of the stadium, up the ramp and lit the cauldron together.
Tretiak and Rodnina both won three gold medals for the former USSR, and Tretiak also has a silver medal, won in 1980 in Lake Placid after the Soviets lost to the United States in the "Miracle on Ice" game.
Rodnina was known for pioneering moves that made her the dominant female pairs skater of her era. She moved to the United States in 1990 to work as a coach and guided a Czech pair to a world title. Today she is a member of parliament as a member of Vladimir Putin's United Russia party and an outspoken critic of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
A tweet of Rodnina's from last year -- a photo of President Barack Obama doctored to include a banana -- drew new attention online Friday. She didn't explain the tweet at the time and later took down the photo, but later defended it with another tweet, saying "Freedom of speech is freedom!"
The opening ceremony and subsequent games on the edge of the Black Sea are Russia's chance to tell its story of post-Soviet resurrection to the world, and dispel the anger, fear and suspicion that has marred the buildup to the most expensive Olympics ever.
Meanwhile, from Washington, D.C., Obama said America "couldn't be prouder of" its athletes who are competing in Sochi. The White House released a brief video of Obama on Friday in which he told U.S. skiers, figure skaters, snowboarders, bobsledders and other athletes that they are an inspiration to the nation. The U.S. has sent some 230 athletes to the Sochi Olympics, the largest delegation ever for any country at the Winter Games.
Just after the sun set over the Caucasus Mountains and along the seashore, just outside Fisht Stadium in the wet-paint-fresh Olympic Park, Russian TV star Yana Churikova shouted to a pre-show crowd still taking their seats: "Welcome to the center of the universe!"
For the next two weeks, it certainly is for the 3,000 athletes who will compete in 98 events, more people and contests than ever at a Winter Games.
A satellite image of Earth was projected on the floor of the stadium as athletes entered during the parade of nations, the map shifting so the athletes emerged from their own countries. The athletes from the Cayman Islands wore short pants.
After Greece, traditionally first as the birthplace nation of Olympic competition, the teams marched into the stadium in Russian alphabetical order, putting the U.S. between Slovenia and Tajkistan.