SOCHI: Russia on Friday officially opens in Sochi its first ever Winter Olympics with a lavish ceremony attended by dozens of heads of state and aimed at impressing a skeptical world with an unforgettable spectacle.
With a hard act to follow after show-stopping Summer Olympics opening ceremonies in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London, Russia is expected to pull out all the stops to give the world an evening to remember.
The ceremony starts, with symbolic timing in the spectacular new Fisht Stadium on the shores of the Black Sea and will mark the beginning of one of the most controversial Olympics in recent history.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has spearheaded the Sochi Games from the bid in 2007, will be at the ceremony along with over 40 other heads of state and leaders.
These will include UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych who is facing a protest uprising at home.
Their appearance will also pave the way for several days of behind-the-scenes diplomacy at the Olympics where the Kremlin hopes to strengthen ties with key allies in an informal setting.
However US President Barack Obama and a host of key EU leaders will be absent, in what is seen by some as a snub to Russia after it passed a widely-condemned law banning the spread of gay propaganda to minors.
There have also been heavy concerns about security at the Games, particularly after the United States warned of the risk of militants attacking Russia-bound planes with explosives stuffed into toothpaste.
‘One of the most exciting ever’
Russia is expected to spare little expense in the ceremony, details of which have been kept under wraps but which is expected to show the world a history of Russian culture and power.
“The ceremony will be one of the most exciting and visual ever,” the head of the Sochi organizing committee Dmitry Chernyshenko told reporters.
“This is a theatre with a 40,000 seat capacity” he said of the Fisht stadium. “It can allow the realization of any creative thought.”
Some of Russia’s most decorated cosmonauts -– including Sergei Krikalev who was famously stranded in space on the Mir station when the USSR collapsed — will raise the Russian flag to the top of the stadium.
However, who will light the Olympic cauldron is a closely-guarded secret, with Putin insisting it is the choice of the organizing committee and not for him to interfere.
Russia’s team will be led out by flag-bearer Alexander Zubkov, a bobsleigh pilot and one of the most respected sportsmen in the country who has represented Russia at every Winter Olympics since Salt Lake City in 2002.
There have been persistent rumors that the Russian female pop duo Tatu –- hugely popular a decade ago — will be involved in the ceremony in some form.
Although heterosexual in real life, the two girls made heavy use of lesbian schoolgirl imagery in pop videos and their name can translate as “This girl loves that girl.”
Their involvement could be seen as a riposte -– albeit somewhat warped –- to Western allegations that Russia is intolerant of homosexuality.
‘We answered the question’
For many elder Russians, the ceremony may bring a pang of nostalgia for the 1980 Moscow Summer Games 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 which is still hanging over the Games.
However Russian officials insist the country is ready to hold a great show and has every right to be the host of the 22nd Winter Games.
“The main question people asked was whether we would manage it,” said Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak. “The answer is clear — we have implemented the biggest investment project in recent Olympic history.”