Russia on Friday launched the opening ceremony for one of the most controversial Winter Olympics in history, seeking to convince a sceptical world that the project spearheaded by President Vladimir Putin would be a success.
After a build-up dogged by controversies over gay rights, construction delays and security concerns, the 40,000 capacity Fisht stadium on the Black Sea in Sochi burst into cheers at 2014 local time (1614 GMT) for the start of the two-and-a-half hour ceremony.
Fireworks were set off as a young girl named Lyubov (Love), attached to a harness, appeared to walk in the air of the stadium above a procession of famous Russian landscapes.
There was an early glitch, however, when one of five illuminated snowflakes which were to morph into the five Olympic rings inside the arena, failed to light.
Few Games in recent times have been so inextricably linked with the name of one man. Putin has championed the drive to host the Olympics in Sochi since before the successful bid in 2007 right up to the ceremony itself.
Putin has welcomed more than 40 other heads of state and leaders for the ceremony, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
However US President Barack Obama as well as the leaders of key EU states Britain, France, and Germany are conspicuous by their absence, a move seen by many as a snub over Russia’s now notorious anti-gay law.
Some 3,500 fireworks weighing a total of 22.5 tonnes are being set off in the course of the ceremony which involves some 3,000 performers and 2,000 volunteers.
The ceremony aims to tell the story of Russia’s history — from ancient times through the imperial era and the revolution — in a way comprehensive and exciting for both Russians and foreigners.
“The main aim is that millions of people feel our love for Russia,” said Konstantin Ernst, the director general of Channel One who is the producer of the ceremony.
Russian female pop duo Tatu, known for their raunchy and sometimes lesbian-tinged music videos performed at the pre-show concert their hit song “Nas Ne Dogonyat” (“Not Gonna Get Us”).
Although both girls are heterosexual, their involvement could be seen as a coded riposte to Western allegations that Russia is intolerant of homosexuality.
But Ernst insisted that the group was simply being used as it was one of very few Russian pop bands known abroad. “We can’t boast such popular pop groups like London,” he said.
Given that Russia is best known for its prowess in classical music and ballet, these genres feature more in the ceremony than rock music.
The ceremony includes a new ballet based on the ball scene from Tolstoy’s novel “War and Peace” performed by dance stars including Svetlana Zakharova of the Bolshoi Ballet.
Burly shaven-headed boxer Nikolai Valuev plays the role of a giant but friendly Soviet policeman Uncle Styopa, a favourite Soviet children’s character who will probably bewilder outsiders.
For many older Russians, the ceremony may bring a pang of nostalgia for the 1980 Moscow Summer Games in the Soviet era, which are still remembered fondly, in particular for the cute mascot Misha the bear.
Russia was pulling out all the stops for the opening ceremony, clearly not wanting to be overshadowed by the astonishing shows put on by Summer Olympics hosts Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012.
But it remains to be seen whether the Sochi opening ceremony will shift the cloud of controversy that has hung over the Games, the most expensive in history with an estimated price tag of $50 billion.
In a symbolic gesture, Google marked the Winter Games by flying the gay flag Thursday in a search page Doodle that linked to a call for equality in the Olympic Charter.
There has also been criticism that not all the facilities were ready on time, in particular accommodation for media.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach admitted there “there is a small hiccup here or there” but said that so far operations were going smoothly.
Security concerns intensified as the United States announced a temporary ban on liquids and gels in hand luggage on Russia-bound flights, following a warning that militants could stuff explosives into toothpaste.
But President Barack Obama said Moscow has an “enormous stake” in thwarting terror at the Games and Secretary of State John Kerry said if his own daughter wanted to attend Sochi “I’d say go”.