SOCHI: President Vladimir Putin on Friday opened the Winter Olympics Games in Sochi that are inextricably linked with his name, after a stunning ceremony where Russia sought to convince the world it is a worthy host.
The high-octane ceremony at the 40,000 capacity Fisht stadium on the Black Sea got off to a rocky start when one of five illuminated snowflakes which were supposed to morph into the Olympic rings failed to appear, leaving an embarrassing set of just four rings.
But thereafter the show charmed and stunned in equal measure, taking hundreds of millions of spectators around the world on a lightning tour of Russian history and culture guided by a young girl named Lyubov (Love).
In a nod towards Russia's proud sporting past, the Olympic cauldron was lit by two triple gold-winning Soviet winter sports icons – figure skater Irina Rodnina and ice hockey legend Vladislav Tretyak – as fireworks rained into the sky.
The flame had been brought into the stadium by US-based Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova and the final relay included Olympic rhythmic gymnastics champion Alina Kabayeva who has been rumoured in some quarters to be Putin's lover.
'Not Gonna Get Us'
Russia is under huge pressure to organise a glitch-free Games after a build-up dogged by controversies over gay rights, construction delays and security.
The concerns that have shadowed these Games were underlined when Turkish media reports said a Ukrainian man attempted to hijack an airliner en route from Ukraine to Turkey and divert it to Sochi. But a Turkish military jet forced the plane to land in Istanbul.
There were no signs of such tension in Sochi as the teams entered the stadium – led by tradition by Olympic Games founder Greece – to the sound of pumping dance house music in an effort to dynamise the procession.
The Russian team won huge cheers as they entered to the song “Nas Ne Dogonyat” (“Not Gonna Get Us”) by female pop duo Tatu known for their raunchy lesbian-tinged pop videos.
Although both girls are heterosexual, their involvement could be seen as a coded riposte to Western allegations that Russia is intolerant of homosexuality.
In line with Olympic protocol, Putin, who has championed the drive to host the Olympics in Sochi since before the successful bid in 2007, made no speech save declaring the Games open.
Putin welcomed more than 40 other heads of state and leaders for the ceremony, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
However US President Barack Obama as well as the leaders of key EU states Britain, France, and Germany are conspicuous by their absence, a move seen by many as a snub over Russia's now notorious anti-gay law.
IOC President Thomas Bach made an impassioned call for politicians to stay out of sports, saying “have the courage to address your disagreements in political dialogue and not on the back of your athletes.”
Enough to silence sceptics?
Some 3,500 fireworks weighing a total of 22.5 tonnes were set off in the course of the ceremony which involved some 3,000 performers and 2,000 volunteers.
The ceremony aimed to tell the story of Russia's history – from ancient times through the imperial era and the revolution – in a way comprehensive and exciting for both Russians and foreigners.
The ceremony included a new ballet based on the ball scene from Tolstoy's novel “War and Peace” performed by dance stars including Svetlana Zakharova of the Bolshoi Ballet and the gravity defying superstar Ivan Vasliev.
Burly shaven-headed heavyweight boxer Nikolai Valuev played the role of a giant but friendly Soviet policeman Uncle Styopa in an episode that sought to portray 1960s USSR as a jazzy and stylish haven for lovers.
For many older Russians, the ceremony may bring a pang of nostalgia for the 1980 Moscow Summer Games in the Soviet era, which are still remembered fondly, in particular for the cute mascot Misha the bear.
But it remains to be seen whether the Sochi opening ceremony will shift the cloud of controversy that has hung over the Games, the most expensive in history with an estimated price tag of $50 billion.
In a symbolic gesture, Google marked the Winter Games by flying the gay flag Thursday in a search page Doodle that linked to a call for equality in the Olympic Charter.
Security concerns had already intensified as the United States announced a temporary ban on liquids and gels in hand luggage on Russia-bound flights, following a warning that militants could stuff explosives into toothpaste.