By Alissa de Carbonnel and Mike Collett-White
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – Russia’s Winter Games got off to a shaky start on Friday when one of the five Olympic rings failed, but ballet dancers, stirring music and huge mechanical props tracing the host nation’s history propelled the opening ceremony forward.
Only four of the five giant Olympic rings unfurled from snowflake-shaped structures suspended from the roof of the 40,000-capacity Fisht Stadium in Sochi, meaning the famous symbol could not be illuminated with fireworks as planned.
The showboat start to a Games President Vladimir Putin hopes will burnish Russia’s image on the world stage went on without further ado, with cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who has spent more days in space than anyone, hoisting the Russian flag.
Putin official declared the February 7-23 Games open to a burst of fireworks that lit up the clear night sky outside the gleaming new stadium located on the shores of the Black Sea.
Before the symbol hiccup, a young girl in white dress soared into the air, lifted by a harness, and sang as islands representing different parts of Russia with folktale scenes drifted dreamlike across the stadium.
Athletes emerged from beneath the stage up a ramp for the traditional parade as a giant satellite image of each nation taken from space was projected onto the floor.
The Russians, outfitted in white fur-trimmed hats and coats, drew wild cheers from a crowd lit up by boxes on seats in the stands creating a dazzling visual backdrop.
The crowd favorite of the evening was clearly a graceful waltz led by stars of Russian ballet as massive columns pushed up out of the floor to set a scene echoing Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece War and Peace.
The twirling dancers were chased out of the stadium by stark red lights, jarring music and a giant train embodying the upheaval of the 1917 Russian revolution and the importance of the avant-garde art movement at around that time.
Soviet socialist realist symbols – including a massive hammer and sickle – powered the audience forward through decades depicted as a time of industrial progress to the thaw of 1950s to modern day.
The state-of-the-art arena, one of several construction projects that have swelled the budget of the Winter Games to a record $50 billion, holds 40,000 people, and Putin was joined by more than 40 world leaders.
Millions more will watch on television and via the Internet as Russia hosts its first Winter Olympics, an event Putin has staked his reputation on.
The run-up to the Games has been marred by threats from Islamist militants based in nearby Chechnya and neighboring southern Russian regions to launch attacks, and by international criticism of Russia’s new “gay propaganda” law.
Organizers have also been under fire for the huge costs involved, unfinished accommodation and amenities, and even the treatment of stray dogs in and around Sochi.
But Putin will hope the opening ceremony signals an end to the griping, as athletes, who have been largely complimentary about the facilities and organization so far, begin to provide the thrills and spills on ice and snow.
Details of the 2-1/2-hour show have been kept a closely guarded secret, but Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, one of the biggest names in international opera, will sing the Olympic anthem.
Putin’s role is likely to be limited to declaring the Games open, as is traditional for the host nation’s head of state.
Asked if Putin might seek to trump the stunt in 2012 where Queen Elizabeth appeared in a film clip with James Bond actor Daniel Craig before body doubles skydived towards the London stadium, Ernst replied: “You shouldn’t hope too much for that.”
In an embarrassing early technical glitch, one of the five Olympic rings suspended high above the stage failed to unfurl, meaning that the giant structure could not be illuminated by fireworks as planned.
But the show went on, blending cartoon-style inflatable domes, spectacular ballroom dancing amid towering imperial columns, and giant avant-garde shapes hovering above symbols of revolution and upheaval in a sweep through Russian history.
Fireworks filled the sky above the Olympic park surrounding the arena in a rousing finale to a show that drew heavily on Russia’s rich heritage of classical music, literature and dance.
As the ceremony unfolded, a security scare aboard a passenger plane flying from Ukraine to Turkey underlined concerns that the Games could be targeted, although the exact circumstances were not immediately clear.
Turkey scrambled an F-16 fighter jet to accompany a plane carrying 110 passengers arriving in Istanbul after a bomb threat was made by a passenger demanding to go to the Winter Olympics venue of Sochi, Turkish officials said.
The passenger was believed to have drunk alcohol and was calmed down by the crew and persuaded to let the plane land in Istanbul, according to Dogan news agency.
The scare came after the U.S. Transportation Security Administration had temporarily banned carry-on liquids, aerosols, gels and powders on flights between Russia and the United States.
The United States issued a warning on Wednesday to airports and some airlines flying to Russia for the Olympics to watch for toothpaste tubes that could hold ingredients to make a bomb on board a plane.
“RING OF STEEL”
Some 37,000 security personnel are on high alert in Sochi over threats by Islamist militant groups based in the nearby north Caucasus region to attack the February 7-23 Games, the most expensive ever staged at an estimated cost of $50 billion.
Separatist guerrillas seeking an independent Islamic state in Chechnya and neighboring regions of southern Russia have vowed to disrupt the Olympics, which they say are taking place on land seized from Caucasus tribes in the 19th century.
Despite a “ring of steel” around venues, Russian forces fear a woman suspected of planning a suicide bombing may have slipped through.
Security analysts believe that an attack is in fact more likely elsewhere in Russia to humiliate Putin, who launched a war to crush a Chechen rebellion in 1999.
Twin suicide bombings killed at least 34 people in December in Volgograd, 400 miles northeast of Sochi.
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COMPETITION STARTS IN EARNEST
Organizers have defended the costs of staging the Sochi Games amid concerns from Olympic officials that the huge price tag could put potential bidders off in future.
They said much of the infrastructure built for 2014 was designed to be used long after the Games finished, and the plan was to turn Sochi into a year-round resort, international sports centre and amusement park.
Despite grumblings about poor accommodation and tight security, the mood among competitors and officials after a handful of early qualifying events in Sochi and at the mountain base 40 km (25 miles) to the northeast was upbeat.
“Conditions offered to the athletes are absolutely outstanding,” said French Olympic Committee President Denis Masseglia on a clear, crisp day.
Saturday is the first full day of sporting action, with five gold medals to be decided.
(Additional reporting by Timothy Heritage, Alissa de Carbonnel and Keith Weir in Sochi and Julien Pretot in Rosa Khutor; Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Peter Rutherford)