FIREWORKS exploding over the night sky at Sochi signalled the start yesterday of the 2014 Winter Olympics and Vladimir Putin’s bid to showcase his nation on the world stage with the costliest Games of all time.
The Russian president – who in the months leading up to the games has been criticised globally over gay rights – stepped forward to sound the starting gun and said: “I declare the 22nd Winter Olympic Games open.”
Two hours earlier, as the ceremony at the edge of the Black Sea began, Russian TV star Yana Churikova shouted to the crowd members taking to their seats in the Fisht Stadium: “Welcome to the centre of the universe.” Shortly afterwards, the 100-year-old Olympic flag was carried into the stadium by eight Russian celebrities, including Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to travel into space.
Excitement grew as the 40,000-strong crowd waited to see who would be given the honour of lighting the Olympic flame with the torch, after its epic 37,500-mile, four-month journey that included a visit to the North Pole and being waved to by cosmonauts outside the International Space Station 260 miles above Earth.
Maria Sharapova, four-times tennis Grand Slam champion, who grew up in Sochi, appeared on the ramp carrying the torch before passing it to Yelena Isinbayeva, who has 28 pole vault records. It was then passed to wrestler Aleksandr Karelin, gymnast Alina Kabaeva, figure skater Irina Rodnina and ice hockey goalkeeper Vladislav Tretiak.
The six athletes ran to the Olympic cauldron with Tretiak and Rodnina breaking away, and with one hand each on the torch they lit the wick in the cauldron, in the centre of the Olympic Park, while Stravinksy’s Firebird Suite filled the stadium.
Dmitry Chernyshenko, the head of the Sochi Olympics, said: “Welcome to the 2014 Olympics Winter Games in Sochi. Our city is unique, as all of Russia is unique. It is the largest country in the world where Europe meets Asia. We are proud to have the privilege to host the entire world.”
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach used his welcome speech at the ceremony to promote Olympic values of diversity and non- discrimination.
Prime Minister David Cameron and US president Barack Obama did not attend the ceremony, which was attended by 44 other heads of state.
But the opening minutes of the ceremony kicking off the £30 billion Games, watched by millions worldwide, was beset by an embarrassing glitch as one of the five Olympic rings hanging above the venue failed to light up completely during the Russian national anthem.
However, events proceeded as planned with cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who has spent more days in space than anyone, hoisting the Russian flag.
The entertainment began with a spectacular display of nine floating “islands” above the stadium, each representing parts of Russia with folktale scenes which included mechanical horses and dogs in the snow.
There followed a spectacular journey through Russian history, including the deeds of Ivan the Terrible, the achievements of Peter the Great, the fall of Imperial Russia and the rise of communism and the Iron Curtain.
Towards the end of the evening’s entertainment, which involved 22 tonnes of fireworks, 3,000 performers and 2,000 volunteers, the lights were lowered as performers, dressed in white to symbolise peace, danced to music by Tchaikovsky.
As the traditional parade of almost 3,000 athletes from 87 nations began, a giant satellite image of each nation taken from space was projected on to the floor of the stadium. Team GB donned blue furry “Russian style” hats as they marched.
Among those from the UK tipped to win medals are the women’s curling team, led by Pitlochry-born Eve Muirhead.
The first medals of the Games will be won today, with five golds awaiting Olympic winners in biathlon, cross-country skiing, freestyle skiing, snowboarding and speed skating.
Google logo goes rainbow in protest at anti-gay legislation
Google has quietly but vibrantly added its voice to the chorus of companies speaking out against Russia’s anti-gay legislation by updating its iconic search page logo to depict images of athletes skiing, sledding, curling and skating against a rainbow-colored backdrop.
The Google Doodle appeared on its home pages worldwide with the firm declining to comment further except to say that the illustration, associated with gay pride across the globe, spoke for itself.
The logo was clearly was meant as a show of support for gay rights and a rebuke to the law that bans pro-gay “propaganda” that could be accessible to minors: below the updated logo appears a two-sentence section of the Olympic charter that reads, in part, “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind.”
“Google has made a clear and unequivocal statement that Russia’s anti-LGBT discrimination is indefensible,” said Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin, whose Washington-based group has been lobbying American corporations, especially those sponsoring the Games in Sochi, to condemn the law signed by Russian president Vladimir Putin in July.
“Now it’s time for each and every remaining Olympic sponsor to follow their lead. The clock is ticking, and the world is watching.”
Although Google is not an Olympics sponsor, the high-profile move came a day after three sponsors of the US Olympic Committee – AT&T, DeVry University and yogurt maker Chobani – issued statements explicitly speaking out against the Russian law.
Google has been an outspoken supporter of gay rights since 2008, when the company got involved in the campaign to defeat a gay marriage ban in a California state ballot.
In 2012 it launched a global workplace safety campaign called “Legalise Love” that it described as a call to decriminalise homosexuality.
Ukrainian passenger plane forced to land after hijacking attempt
A MAN on board a flight to Turkey yesterday claimed there was a bomb on board and tried to hijack the plane to Sochi at the time of the opening of the winter games, an official said.
The plane from Kharkov, Ukraine, landed safely at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport, where 110 passengers and several members of crew spent some time convincing the man to give himself up, said Habib Soluk, the country’s transport ministry under-secretary.
Mr Soluk said the man rose from his seat, shouted that there was a bomb on board and tried to enter the locked cockpit. The pilot signalled there was a hijack attempt and the airport was placed on high alert.
Pegasus Airlines confirmed in a brief statement there had been a “bomb threat” aboard the flight from Kharkov.
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 athletes, spectators and officials worldwide jittery about potential threats.
Security experts warn that Islamic militants in the Caucasus, who have threatened to derail the Winter Games, could achieve their goal by choosing soft targets away from the Olympic sites or even outside Sochi.
The December suicide bombings of a railway station and a bus in Volgograd killed 34 people and demonstrated the militants’ ability to strike.