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Grand opening

Sunday, February 09, 2014

SOCHI, Russia - Music, dance and plenty of Russian bravado unleashed the ultimate achievement of Vladimir Putin's Russia — a Winter Olympics to showcase the best athletes on ice and snow that the world has to offer.

The opening ceremony on the edge of the Black Sea and subsequent games are Russia's chance to tell its story of post-Soviet resurrection to the world, and dispel the anger, fear and suspicion that has marred the build-up to these most expensive Olympics ever.

Just after the sun set over the Caucasus Mountains and along the seashore just outside Fisht Stadium in the wet-paint-fresh Olympic Park, Russian TV star Yana Churikova shouted to a crowd still taking their seats: "Welcome to the centre of the universe!"

For the next two weeks, it certainly is for the 3000 athletes who will compete in 98 events, more people and contests than ever at the Winter Games.

American snowboarder Shaun White is certain to wow crowds in the Krasnaya Polyana resort halfpipe. On the ice, Canadian hockey players Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews will try to add another gold medal to their collection of Stanley Cups. In the rink, American's Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold will try to dethrone South Korean marvel and defending goal medallist Yuna Kim.

But every athlete who makes it to Sochi is honoured with the title Olympian, and a satellite image of the earth was projected on the floor of Fisht Stadium as they entered during the parade of nations, the map shifting so the athletes emerged from their own country. The athletes from the Cayman Islands even arrived in shorts!

After Greece, traditionally first as the birthplace nation of Olympic competition, the teams marched into the stadium in Russian alphabetical order.

The ceremony was crafted as a celebration of Russia and is presenting Putin's version: a country with a rich and complex history emerging confidently from a rocky two decades and now capable of putting on a major international sports event.

The official ceremony opened with the Russian alphabet projected on the stadium floor, as a young girl told the story of her country's heroes and their globally renowned achievements: composer Tchaikovsky; artists Kandinsky, Chagall and Malevich; writers Tolstoy, Pushkin and Chekhov; Mendeleev and his periodic table; the first spaceship Sputnik and Russia's space stations.

There was a glitch, too, as the lighting of the five Olympic Rings overshadowed the singing of the Russian national anthem.

Five stars on cables drifted together above the stadium, and four of them turned into Olympic rings — but the fifth never unfurled and they all failed to erupt into white flames as planned, marring what's traditionally a key moment in the ceremony.

The Winter Games ceremony is generally a more low-key event than the summer opener.

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