Sochi Winter Olympics begin with Putin trying to refute critics

Opening ceremony launches event amid security concerns and controversy over gay rights

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 February, 2014, 6:39pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 February, 2014, 9:36am

Russia yesterday launched the opening ceremony for one of the most controversial Winter Olympics in history, seeking to convince a sceptical world that the project spearheaded by President Vladimir Putin would be a success.

After a build-up dogged by controversies over gay rights, construction delays and security concerns, the 40,000 capacity Fisht stadium on the Black Sea in Sochi burst into cheers for the start of the two-and-a-half hour ceremony.

Fireworks were set off 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.

There was an early glitch, however, when one of five illuminated snowflakes which were to morph into the five Olympic rings inside the arena, failed to light.

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.

He has welcomed more than 40 other heads of state and leaders for the ceremony, including President Xi Jinping , who met Putin in Sochi on Thursday.

Xi, who was sitting next to Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, waved to the delegations of Hong Kong and China.

Xi's visit coincided with a trip by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, which faces sharply deteriorating ties with China involving spats over tiny uninhabited islands. The presence of both leaders was a seal of approval for Putin and showed the political stakes at play.

Xi "voiced his confidence that, with Russia's careful preparations, the Sochi Winter Olympics will be a splendid and unforgettable sports event", Xinhua said.

However, US President Barack Obama as well as the leaders of key European Union 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.

Underscoring fears over security, a Ukrainian man reportedly tried to hijack an airliner en route from Ukraine to Turkey and divert it to Sochi.

The man claimed there was a bomb on board the Pegasus Airlines aircraft, tried to gain access to the cockpit and was carrying a detonator, unconfirmed media reports said.

An F-16 Turkish military jet was scrambled, forcing the plane with some 110 passengers on board to land in Istanbul, the reports said.

Turkish anti-terrorist commandos and armed police were searching all the passengers and the aircraft for explosives.