-- 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.
Before the athletes' entrance, the ceremony hit an early bump when only four of the five Olympic rings materialized in a wintry opening scene.
Five large, glowing snowflakes emerged from a whimsical opening meant to depict the four seasons. They floated to the top of the stadium and, one by one, started to morph into rings. But only four joined together, while the fifth remained a snowflake, apparently stuck behind the rest of them.
The five were supposed to join together and erupt in pyrotechnics to get the party started. Instead, they were eventually darkened and moved out of the stadium, just as Putin was introduced.
The broken snowflake isn't the first opening ceremony blunder in Olympic history, of course. Vancouver, Sydney and Seoul all had issues with the torch lighting.
Sochi's opening ceremony is crafted as a celebration of Russia and is presenting Putin's version: a country with a rich and complex history emerging confidently from a rocky two decades and now capable of putting on a major international sports event.
The ceremony opened with the Russian alphabet projected on the stadium floor, as a young girl told the story of her country's heroes and their globally renowned achievements: composer Tchaikovsky; artists Kandinsky, Chagall and Malevich; writers Tolstoy, Pushkin and Chekhov; Mendeleev and his periodic table; the first satellite Sputnik and Russia's space stations.
In a nod to Russia's long history, the national anthem was sung by the 600-year-old Sretensky Monastery Choir, a symbol of an increasing rapprochement between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church. The monastery is led by Tikhon Shevkunov, who is known to be Putin's confessor and one of the nation's most influential clergymen.
Every seat at Fisht Stadium had cloth bags that included a faux Olympic medal that those in attendance were asked to put around their necks. The medals lit up in several colors, including blue, white and violet. The decorations sent shock waves of light in sync with the upbeat techno music playing in the background as each nation was introduced.
The announcer paused for dramatic effect before the Russians were introduced, and the lights formed a red, white and blue waving flag as those in the crowd stood and clapped along to a thumping beat that shook the building.
After the athletes had taken their seats in the crowd, a fanciful scene started with three giant, white, illuminated horses leading a parade of towering inflatables on to the stage. The balloons -- all with the familiar bulbous tops of Russian cathedrals -- bounced around the stage as children frolicked in a euphoric state of play.
It looked like a Russian version of Disney on Ice, and the thrilling scene wrapped up with church bells ringing and the kids bounding off to loud cheers.
The night also included the ballet, classical music and odes to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.
Before the televised portion of the ceremony, Russian singers Tatu performed "Not Gonna Get Us" -- steering clear of the anger over a Russian law banning gay propaganda aimed at "protecting" minors. The women in Tatu are known for putting on a lesbian act that is largely seen as an attention-getting gimmick, but on this night, they merely held hands, stopping short of the groping and kissing of their past performances.
This time, their lead-in act was the Red Army Choir MVD signing Daft Punk's Grammy-winning "Get Lucky."
For people who don't know much about Russia, the ceremony's director, Konstantin Ernst, promised "relatively simple metaphors" -- and no obscure references, like the nurses in the London Games' opening ceremony representing the National Health Service, which he called one of the most "incomprehensible" moments in Olympic history.
Ernst said Tatu's "Not Gonna Get Us" was chosen because it's one of the few Russian pop songs that international viewers might recognize. Ernst also argued the choice of Tatu's song was about motivating athletes with an upbeat dance song that challenges competitors by saying, "You're not going to get us."
The Winter Games ceremony is generally a more low-key event than the summer opener. Ernst said organizers tried to keep it from dragging out too long, since most viewers only care to watch their own nations and their key rivals enter the stadium.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.