Winter Olympics opening ends in controversy

02:13, Feb 08 2014
Sochi opening ceremony
The Russian flag is shown by lit up volunteers and spotlights during the opening ceremony.
Sochi opening ceremony
Russian president Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with IOC president Thomas Bach.
Sochi opening ceremony
Julia Volkova and Lena Katina of t.A.T.u perform during the opening ceremony.
Sochi opening ceremony
A view from inside Fisht Stadium as the Austrian team enters.
Sochi opening ceremony
The fifth snowflake fails to open into an Olympic ring.
Sochi opening ceremony
Liza Temnikova as Lyubov performs 'Voices of Russia' during the opening ceremony.
Sochi opening ceremony
The outside view of Fisht Stadium as dusk sets in at Sochi.
Sochi opening ceremony
Five snowflakes, symbolising the Olympic rings, begin to open.
Sochi opening ceremony
Fireworks explode outside Fisht Stadium as the opening ceremony starts.
Sochi opening ceremony
The colourful German team enters Fisht Stadium.
Sochi opening ceremony
A wide view inside Fisht Stadium, showing the failed fifth Olympic ring.
Sochi opening ceremony
The USA team, complete with their ugly Christmas sweater-looking outfits.
Sochi opening ceremony
Shane Dobbin leads the New Zealand team into Fisht Stadium.
Sochi opening ceremony
Members of the host Russian team arrive to huge cheers.
Sochi opening ceremony
The mascots of the Sochi Games, the hare, the bear and the leopard, during the opening ceremony.
Sochi opening ceremony
Inflatable balloons depicting elements of St Peter's Basilica float to the sky.
Sochi opening ceremony
A dancer performs during the opening ceremony, depicted the era of Peter the Great.
Sochi opening ceremony
Dancers perform during the Sochi opening ceremony.
Sochi opening ceremony
Scenes from inside Fisht Stadium during the opening ceremony.
Sochi opening ceremony
Scenes from inside Fisht Stadium during the opening ceremony.
Sochi opening ceremony
Volunteers bring the Olympic flag into Fisht Stadium.
Sochi opening ceremony
The Olympic flame is lit outside Fisht Stadium in Sochi.

The opening of the Winter Olympics was supposed to be a triumph for Vladimir Putin that ended months of criticism of the Russian president over gay rights and talk of corruption surrounding the Games.

But a technical glitch and the choice of an athlete who tweeted what was widely seen as a racist photo of US President Barack Obama to light the Olympic flame meant it ended up stoking controversy.

Efforts by state television to conceal from viewers the moment when one of the five rings that make up the Olympic Games symbol failed to light up, and complaints by a singer that her music was used without permission, made matters even worse.

Olympic Rings
OPENING FURORE: The opening of the Winter Olympics was supposed to be a triumph for Vladimir Putin but it ended in controversy.

The event's creative director, Konstantin Ernst, tried to portray it as business as usual after the technical fault meant the ring could not be illuminated by fireworks and a snowflake appeared instead. But his efforts fell flat.

"No normal person would get distracted by one snowflake that did not open from the story that is being told over two and half hours," said Ernst, who also runs a state television channel.

"Zen Buddhists have a saying that if you have the perfectly polished ball, leave a nick in it so you can understand just how perfectly it is polished. The (opening of the) rings was the simplest technical thing. That came first and everything else went off, and this was that nick."

Advertisement

Ernst also shrugged off a question from a reporter about state television's decision to switch to a recording of the rehearsal of the opening ceremony when it became clear the fifth ring would not be illuminated.

The decision was natural and unexceptional, he said, because the most important thing was to present the world with a good performance.

Putin may not be quite so zen. He has staked his reputation on staging a safe and successful Games, despite threats from Islamist militants to disrupt them, and wants to use the Olympics to show how far Russia has come since Soviet times.

His hopes that the international criticism - particularly over a law banning the spread of "gay propaganda" among minors - will end when the sporting action begins may now be unfounded.

DOCTORED PHOTO OF OBAMA

The choice of former figure skater Irina Rodnina as one of two people to light the Olympic flame, a great honour and sign of respect, might once have seemed straightforward.

Three times an Olympic champion, she is a national hero. Rodnina is also a member of parliament who is loyal to Putin.

But she caused an outcry in the United States last September by re-tweeting a photoshopped picture that showed Obama chewing and a hand waving a banana in front of him.

The US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, accused Rodnina at the time of "outrageous behaviour, which only brings shame to her parliament and country".

Rodnina said she had been sent the picture by friends in the United States and added: "Freedom of speech is freedom of speech, and you should answer for your own hang-ups."

Ernst deflected criticism of the choice of Rodnina by saying she was a great sportswoman and said he had not read the tweet.

He also defended the choice of the other five people who carried the Olympic torch at the ceremony. They included Alina Kabayeva, a gold medallist in rhythmic gymnastics whom Russian media have linked with Putin so often that the Kremlin last year issued a denial that he had secretly married her.

Also among the stars who carried the torch in the state-of-the-art Fisht stadium was Yelena Isinbayeva, whose comments defending the "gay propaganda" law last summer prompted accusations abroad that she was homophobic.

Because both have been the cause of controversy so recently, the choice of Isinbayeva and Rodnina could be seen in Washington as a snub to Obama, who is not attending the Games and sent a delegation including officials who are gay.

Although much criticised abroad, the "gay propaganda" law is popular among Russians and was part of Putin's efforts to rally support among socially conservative voters after protests.

Standing up to the West goes down well with voters and is a trump card which the former KGB spy plays often.

The other sour note was sounded by Zemfira, a popular Russian singer who said one of her songs had been used without her agreement.

"It was a really great ceremony... But what is this crap? Do you do whatever you want?" she asked of Ernst.

In Russia, the ceremony is likely to be hailed as a success and the Western media coverage seen as exaggerated.

"In my opinion, to me as a journalist, it is even insulting because it is not how journalists should do their job," veteran television journalist Vladimir Pozner told Reuters. "It is almost like Soviet propaganda." 

Reuters