Russia’s Winter Olympics officially got underway on the Black Sea coast with a burst of fireworks and a dazzling opening ceremony that President Vladimir Putin hoped would dispel fears of militant attacks and a row over gay rights.
Putin has staked his reputation on hosting a safe and successful Games in the resort town of Sochi, where a high-octane show before 40,000 spectators at the gleaming new Fisht Stadium signalled the start of the full sporting programme.
He was joined by leaders from China, Japan and about 40 other countries in a show of support despite an international outcry over Russia’s ‘gay propaganda’ law passed last year, which critics say curtails the rights of homosexuals.
Despite grumblings about poor accommodation and tight security, the mood among competitors and officials after a handful of early qualifying events in Sochi and at the mountain base 40 km to the northeast was upbeat.
“Conditions offered to the athletes are absolutely outstanding,” said French Olympic Committee president Denis Masseglia on a clear, crisp day.
Around 37,000 security personnel are on high alert over threats to attack the Games, the most expensive ever staged at an estimated cost of $50bn.
There was a glitch at the ceremony, too, as the lighting of the five Olympic Rings overshadowed the singing of the Russian national anthem. Five stars on cables drifted together above the stadium, and four of them turned into Olympic rings – but the fifth never unfurled and they all failed to erupt into white flames as planned, marring what’s traditionally a key moment in the ceremony.