SOCHI, February 7 (RIA Novosti) – The opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics has gotten under way in the southern Russian city of Sochi.
Preparations for Friday’s ceremony, which began at 8:14 p.m. local time, were conducted under a veil of secrecy, although some details had leaked out in the days running up to the event.
The opening marks the culmination of years of preparations for the Winter Games, on which authorities have staked hopes of casting Russia as a dynamic and confident modern nation.
The run-up to the competition has been marked by controversy over a range of issues, however, ranging from the purported $51 billion spent on creating infrastructure to an anti-gay propaganda law that has dominated the coverage of much international media.
President Vladimir Putin has sought to downplay those specific concerns, insisting that there was little evidence that the Sochi projects had been blighted by corruption and that gay people would be welcome in Sochi.
More than 50 heads of state and government are attending the opening ceremony in what organizers say is a record.
“The Games in Sochi will be record-setting in the history of the Winter Games in terms of attendance of heads of state and government,” the Games organizers told RIA Novosti. “That’s more than at the last two Games in Turin and Vancouver combined.”
Leaders in attendance include Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Norway’s King Harald V and Prime Minister Erna Solberg.
US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron are among the more conspicuous names to have turned down invitations, however. French President Francois Hollande declared in December he would not attend and German President Joachim Gauck explicitly cited Russia’s human rights record as the reason he would skip it.
Russia’s attempts to justify the International Olympic Committee’s selection of Sochi as the host city over the more traditional winter venues of Salzburg and Pyeongchang have suffered because all the talk has been dominated by unfinished media hotels, gay rights issues and terrorism threats.
However, in the sports arena, there could hardly have been a more promising start. Thursday was devoted to two new events in the Olympic program: slopestyle and the team figure skating event.
Pomp and Ceremony: Winter Olympics Open in Sochi
In the mountains, Austria’s Anna Gasser surprised her more illustrious opponents by posting a leading score to secure a place in the first-ever Olympic women’s snowboard slopestyle final.
In the men’s event, hit by the last-minute withdrawal of US star Shaun White, Canadian gold medal favorite Max Parrot soared into the final with the leading score.
Down on the coast, the home nation had a near-perfect start to its campaign as Maxim Trankov and Tatiana Volosozhar thrust Russia into the lead of the team figure skating with a stunning short program.
They may have taken inspiration from Turin Olympic champion Evgeny Plushenko, who rolled back the years and fought off old injuries to put in an elegant routine in the men’s individual part of the program and finish in second place behind session winner Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan.
The first medals will be decided Saturday in that very event, as well as in the women’s cross country skiathlon, the men’s 5,000 meters speedskating and the men’s biathlon sprint.
The Games run through February 23, with a total of about 3,000 athletes from 88 countries competing in a record 98 medal events.