Sochi (AFP) – Russia on Friday staged a glitzy opening ceremony for one of the most controversial Winter Olympics in history, seeking to convince a skeptical world that the Games spearheaded by President Vladimir Putin would be a success.
The high-octane ceremony at the 40,000 capacity Fisht stadium on the Black Sea in Sochi 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.
Underlining the security concerns that have shadowed these Games, Turkish media reports said a Ukrainian man attempted Friday to hijack an airliner en route from Ukraine to Turkey and divert it to Sochi. A Turkish military jet forced the plane to land in Istanbul.
Russia is under huge pressure to organize a glitch-free Games after a build-up dogged by controversies over gay rights, construction delays and security.
Fireworks rained down from the sky as a young girl named Lyubov (Love), attached to a harness, appeared to walk in the air of the stadium above a procession of famous Russian landscapes.
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 dynamize the procession.
The small team from Bermuda caused a stir by wearing shorts, the British endeared themselves to the locals by donning Russian fur hats while the U.S. team came in sporting garish star-spangled cardigans.
The Russian team won huge cheers as they entered the stadium 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.
Few Games in recent times have been so inextricably linked with the name of one man. Putin has championed the drive to host the Olympics in Sochi since before the successful bid in 2007 right up to the ceremony itself.
Putin has welcomed more than 40 other heads of state and leaders for the ceremony, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
However U.S. 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.
Some 3,500 fireworks weighing a total of 22.5 tonnes are being set off in the course of the ceremony which involves some 3,000 performers and 2,000 volunteers.
The ceremony aims 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 main aim is that millions of people feel our love for Russia,” said Konstantin Ernst, the director general of Channel One who is the producer of the ceremony.
Given that Russia is best known for its prowess in classical music and ballet, these genres feature more in the ceremony than rock music.
The ceremony includes 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.
Burly shaven-headed boxer Nikolai Valuev plays the role of a giant but friendly Soviet policeman Uncle Styopa, a favorite Soviet children’s character who will probably bewilder outsiders.
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.
But President Barack Obama said Moscow has an “enormous stake” in thwarting terror at the Games and Secretary of State John Kerry said if his own daughter wanted to attend Sochi “I’d say go.”
AFP Photo/Alberto Pizzoli