SOCHI, Russia: Olympic athletes were on Saturday competing for the first medals of the Sochi Winter Games after Russia staged a thrilling opening ceremony that impressed even foreign skeptics.
President Vladimir Putin late Friday 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 organizers, 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 meters.
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 organizers 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 organizing 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.