SOCHI, February 7- Russia on Friday officially opens its first ever Winter Olympics with a ceremony attended by dozens of heads of state and aimed at impressing a sceptical world with an unforgettable spectacle.
With a hard act to follow after show-stopping Summer Olympics opening ceremonies in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London, Russia is expected to pull out all the stops to give the world a night to remember.
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”.
The ceremony starts, with symbolic timing, at 2014 local time (1614 GMT) in the spectacular new Fisht Stadium on the shores of the Black Sea.
Sporting action got under way on Thursday, with Russian veteran Yevgeny Plushenko rolling back the years to help the Olympic hosts lead the new team figure skating competition. Snowboarders and freestyle skiers also started competition.
With an estimated price tag of $50 billion for building facilities and infrastructure in the underdeveloped southern Russian region, the Games are the most expensive in history and also among the most controversial.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has spearheaded the Sochi Games from the bid victory in 2007, will be at the ceremony along with more than 40 other heads of state and leaders.
These will include UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who is facing a protest uprising at home.
‘Small hiccups here and there’
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.
But it remains to be seen whether the Sochi opening ceremony will shift the cloud of controversy hanging over the Games.
Obama and a host of key EU leaders will be absent, in what is seen by some as a snub to Russia after it passed a widely condemned law banning the spread of gay propaganda to minors.
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.
“So we can look to tonight full of anticipation and excitement that we will have a great opening ceremony for a great Olympic Games,” he said.
‘One of the most exciting ever’
Details have been kept under wraps but the head of the Sochi organising committee Dmitry Chernyshenko, said the ceremony “will be one of the most exciting and visual ever”.
“This is a theatre with a 40,000-seat capacity” he said of the Fisht stadium. “It can allow the realisation of any creative thought.”
Some of Russia’s most decorated cosmonauts — including Sergei Krikalev, who was famously stranded in space on the Mir station when the Soviet Union collapsed — will raise the Russian flag to the top of the stadium.
However, who will light the Olympic cauldron is a closely guarded secret, with Putin insisting it is the choice of the organising committee and not for him to interfere.
Russia’s team will be led out by flag-bearer Alexander Zubkov, a bobsleigh pilot and one of the most respected sportsmen in the country who has represented Russia in the sport at every Winter Olympics since Salt Lake City in 2002.
There have been persistent rumours that the Russian female pop duo Tatu — hugely popular a decade ago — will be involved in the ceremony in some form.
Although heterosexual, the two girls have made heavy use of lesbian schoolgirl imagery in pop videos and their name can translate as “This girl loves that girl”.
Their involvement could be seen as a riposte — albeit somewhat warped — to Western allegations that Russia is intolerant of homosexuality.