SOCHI, Feb 8 ― Olympic athletes were today competing for the first medals of the Sochi Winter Games after Russia staged a thrilling opening ceremony that impressed even foreign sceptics.
President Vladimir Putin late yesterday declared open the 22nd Winter Olympics in a ceremony that took 40,000 people packed into the Fisht stadium and TV viewers around the world on a lightning tour through Russian history.
Thousands of fireworks exploded above the venue on the Black Sea coast during a ceremony that won gushing global praise despite an early glitch when one of the Olympic rings failed to appear.
“We missed this for so many years... a pride for our country, a feeling for her power, unity and greatness. Yesterday, we felt it,” the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily said.
After a build-up dogged by controversies on issues ranging from Russia’s gay rights record to security, the successful ceremony took some pressure off the organisers, who have been under unprecedented scrutiny.
In Games that are among the most politically charged of recent times, the focus moves to the sporting action Saturday at sea-level and in the mountains above Sochi. Five gold medals are up for grabs.
The first gold will likely come in the women’s cross-country skiathlon, while Norwegian biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, 40, will become the joint highest medal winner in Winter Olympics history if he makes the podium in the sprint.
Women will seek gold in the spectacular moguls freestyle event, the men’s snowboard slopestyle will be decided after a succession of spectacular crashes while the endurance kings of speed skating will face off in the lung-busting men’s 5,000 metres.
‘We want to break stereotypes’
The high-octane ceremony, devised by the powerful boss of Russia's Channel One television Konstantin Ernst, got off to a rocky start when one of five illuminated artificial snowflakes that were supposed to morph into the Olympic rings failed to open, leaving just four rings.
But organisers brushed off the mishap, admitting that they covered up the glitch on Russian state television by quickly inserting footage of the segment they had recorded days earlier.
The unflappable Ernst drew on Buddhist philosophy. “There is a saying that you have to kick out the uneven part of a perfectly polished ball to understand how perfect it is,” he said.
Thereafter the show charmed and stunned in equal measure, taking viewers on a lightning tour through Russian history and culture guided by a young girl named Lyubov (Love).
“We want to break stereotypes and show the world the new Russia,” said the head of the Sochi organising committee, Dmitry Chernyshenko.
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.
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.
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.
Even the foreign press, which have been hugely critical of Russia in the days up to the Games, heaped praised on the ceremony.
“For Russia last night it marked its revival as a post-Soviet powerhouse, confident of its seat at the top table after two decades of doubt and despondency,” Britain’s Daily Mail wrote.
‘Keep politics out of Olympics’
Putin, who spearheaded the successful bid in 2007, 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 Yanukovich.
However, US President Barack Obama as well as the leaders of key EU states Britain, France, and Germany were conspicuous by their absence, a move seen by many as a snub over Russia’s now notorious anti-gay law.
But IOC President Thomas Bach made an impassioned call for politics to stay out of sport, saying
“have the courage to address your disagreements in political dialogue and not on the back of your athletes”.
The security concerns that have shadowed these Games were underlined when a Ukrainian man attempted to hijack an airliner en route from Ukraine to Turkey and divert it to Sochi.
But Turkish military jets forced the plane to land in Istanbul, where security teams overpowered the man, said to be drunk.
The United States has already 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. ― AFP