Russian president Vladimir Putin opened the winter Paralympics in Sochi last night against the backdrop of his country’s military action in Crimea and the threat of a split in one of the world’s largest nations.
The Ukrainian team boycotted the ceremony, delivering a pointed message by sending out a single flag-bearer to represent the 23-strong team in the athletes’ parade.
The appearance of biathlete Mykhaylo Tkachenko drew a roar from the capacity crowd at the Fisht Olympic Stadium.
Entering in a wheelchair with the Ukrainian flag, he wore a serious expression and displayed no emotion.
The Ukrainian team had announced only a few hours earlier that it would not boycott the games, but said it could pull out of the ten-day event if the Crimea situation escalates.
Valeriy Sushkevich, president of the Ukrainian Paralympic committee, said: “I declare should this happen we will leave the games. We cannot possibly stay here in this case.”
He said the situation in which a host nation was actively engaged in an armed incursion in another country was unprecedented. “I don’t remember a situation when the organising country during a Paralympics started an intervention on the territory of a country taking part,” he said. “I don’t know to what extent the team can focus on the result.”
Mr Suskevich, who has been a senior politician in Ukraine for 15 years, met Mr Putin on Thursday night to discuss the situation and request peace during the games. He said the meeting was “calm”, “polite” and “respectful” and it was “extremely important” Mr Putin agreed to listen.
He said he had not received any “guarantees” but that the Russian president told him he would “think about” his points.
“I could have talked at length to the president of Russia about Crimea,” MrSuskevich said. “I could have talked a lot about conflict; I didn’t have time. I realise there is exclusivity in meeting the president of Russia. I reiterated for Mr Putin, emphasising one request, that during the Paralympic games we would have peace.”
Ukraine’s decision to compete was welcomed by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). “We want sport to prevail and a full complement of teams to compete in what we are confident will be a fantastic Paralympic winter games,” IPC president Phillip Craven said.
“All week, the IPC has been working closely with the Ukrainian Paralympic committee in an effort to keep them here in Sochi. The talking point of Sochi 2014 needs to be great sport and great athletes, not global politics.”
The IPC has appealed for Russia to recognise the UN’s Olympic truce, which asks warring parties to cease hostilities during the Olympics and Paralympics.
Ukrainian athletes chanted “peace to Ukraine” as they walked out of a flag-raising ceremony in Sochi on Thursday. That is now under investigation by the IPC as a possible breach of rules banning political protests.
“What we’re trying to do is gather the evidence and then we will see if any steps are necessary,” IPC spokesman Craig Spence said. “If there was a political protest, obviously we’d be disappointed by that because we have said all week that this is about sport, not politics.”
In his speech at the ceremony, Mr Craven noted that the former Soviet Union had refused to stage the Paralympics in 1980 in conjunction with the Moscow Olympics. “But dreams do come true,” he said.
Continuing the patriotism of the Olympic opening a month earlier, yesterday’s show began with rhythmic marching by 126 dancers in the colours of the Russian flag. Russian classical music and dance were constant features in the ceremony, with dozens of young ballet dancers performing to Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
There were also animated interludes featuring the firebird, drawn by Oscar-winning animator Alexander Petrov. Even the Russian winter tradition of ice fishing was celebrated, in a performance featuring dozens of wheelchair dancers.
Rarely publicly visible in Russian society, disabled people played a leading role in the opening ceremony.
A promotional video for the Paralympics that was displayed at the end of the ceremony explicitly spoke out against discrimination on the grounds of “sexual orientation”.
It follows the recent introduction of a Russian law banning gay “propaganda”. Critics say its loose interpretation effectively stops gay rights protests in Russia, and comes at a time when homophobic attacks by gangs are reported to be increasing.