The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics were declared officially open by Russian president Vladimir Putin at a lavish ceremony yesterday in which International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach called for “goodwill, tolerance, excellence and peace”.
The showpiece at the Fisht Olympic Stadium began at 2014 local time, featured former world heavyweight champion boxer Nikolai Valuev and tennis star Maria Sharapova, and was preceded by a warm-up segment that included a performance by controversial pop act t.A.T.u.
The duo, Lena Katina and Julia Volkova, sang a Russian version of their hit single “Not Gonna Get Us”, holding hands on the stage and surrounded by Games volunteers. The single, which reached number seven in the UK charts in 2003, depicts the pair as teenage runaways-in-love and the duo’s image appeared to contradict Russia’s hard-line laws on “non-traditional” sexuality, widely seen as an attack on gay rights.
In his speech, Bach thanked workers for their efforts in preparing Sochi for the Games. He then delivered a message to the “political leaders of the world”, saying: “Thank you for supporting your athletes, they are the best ambassadors of your country.
“Please respect their Olympic message of goodwill, of tolerance, of excellence and of peace. Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful, direct political dialogue and not on the backs of these athletes.”
He added: “The universal Olympic rules apply to each and every athlete, no matter where you come from or what your background is. You are living together in the Olympic village. You will celebrate victory with dignity and accept defeat with dignity. You are bringing the Olympic values to life.” Bach then handed over to Putin, who announced from the stands: “I declare open the Olympic Winter Games of Sochi.”
With about 100,000 police, security agents and army troops flooding Sochi, Russia has pledged to ensure “the safest Olympics in history”. But terror fears fuelled by recent suicide bombings have left concerns about potential threats.
Security experts warn Islamic militants in the Caucasus, who have threatened to derail the Winter Games that run until February 23, could achieve their goal by choosing soft targets away from the Olympic sites or outside Sochi.
It was unclear, however, whether an incident on board a flight from the Ukraine to Istanbul yesterday, in which a passenger claimed to have a bomb as he tried to force his way into the cockpit demanding the plane chamge route to Sochi, was a genuine hijack attempt.
An F-16 fighter was scrambled to escort the plane to Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport where the man was arrested. He was reported to be in a heavily intoxicated state.
The Games in the south-west coastal resort have cost Russia £30billion to stage and there was evidence of the money spent during the opening ceremony.
An early hiccup occurred when one of five rings brought together in mid-air to form the Olympic symbol failed to light properly, but overall, those watching in the arena and around the world were treated to an impressive show full of spectacular visuals and elaborate choreography.
It was designed as a depiction of the history of Russia as seen through the dreams of a young girl named Lubov, meaning Love, and focused on the country’s past, present and future.
There was also the traditional Parade of Nations, in which athletes emerged from out of the floor in the centre of the stadium.
Team GB was led by flagbearer Jon Eley and the host nation – last out – had bobsledder Alexander Zubkov in the role. Eley’s fellow British short track speed skater Jack Whelbourne said: “I was pumped marching in. The stadium is amazing.”
The ceremony concluded with the Olympic cauldron being lit via the torch.
Sochi 2014 organisers said 66 leaders including heads of state and international organisations would attend, with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and leaders of China and Japan joining Putin. But several world leaders were notably not attending, including Barack Obama, David Cameron and Angela Merkel.