Russian President Vladimir Putin has opened the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in a spectacular ceremony in Sochi.
The ceremony at the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi was themed Breaking the Ice and featured music, dance, special effects and fireworks.
“I call upon all those who experience these Games to have barrier-free minds,” said International Paralympic Committee president Sir Philip Craven.
“Dreams do come true and, since winning the Games seven years ago, this part of Russia has undergone a monumental transformation.
“The Paralympics will surprise you, tremendous skills will excite you and examples of human endeavor will inspire you. The sport you witness here will change you. Not just for now, but forever.”
2014 Winter Paralympic Games have been opened in a spectacular ceremony in Sochi
The Ukraine team only confirmed on Friday morning they would take part in the Games after fears they would boycott the event following Russia’s occupation of Crimea.
Ukraine Paralympic Committee president Valeriy Suskevich warned that any escalation of military conflict would result in the team leaving Sochi.
The Ukraine team was only represented in the athletes’ parade by their flag-bearer Mykailo Tkachenko, with a number of his team-mates opting not to take part though they were elsewhere in the stadium.
The scenes of the ceremony were linked by the journey of the firebird, a mythical bird from Russian folklore said to be a symbol of wealth and happiness.
Featured performances came from 25-year-old Yulia Samoylova, the runner-up in the Russian version of the X Factor, Faktor A, who has been in a wheelchair since childhood, and blind accordionist Alexey Levchuk.
The show culminated in a huge ice scene, featuring an Icebreaker ship crashing easily through blocks of ice, before a spectacular lighting of the flame.
Action starts on Saturday and runs until Sunday, March 16, and the Games will feature 547 athletes from a record 45 countries, with 72 gold medals up for grabs across the five sports – biathlon, cross-country skiing, alpine skiing, ice sledge hockey and wheelchair curling.
Winter Paralympics Games are taking place less than two weeks since the Sochi Winter Olympics closed.
Russia finished on top of the medal table as the 22nd Winter Olympics came to a close in Sochi on Sunday after 17 days of competition.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach officially closed the Games during an extravagant 130-minute ceremony.
South Korea was given the Olympic flag as Pyeongchang hosts the 2018 Games.
Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated a rush of medals in Sochi with a triumphant closing ceremony on the shores of the Black Sea.
After spending $50 billion to build a mountain ski resort and a cluster of shimmering sports venues from scratch, failure was not an option for the omnipresent Russian president.
At the opening ceremony a fortnight ago, all the talk was of security fears, culls of stray dogs, last-minute glitches and a giant hydraulic snowflake that failed to open.
The 22nd Winter Olympics came to a close in Sochi on Sunday after 17 days of competition
But by the closing ceremony – which featured ballet from the Bolshoi, music by Rachmaninov and tributes to Tolstoy and Kandinsky plus the usual protocol – the atmosphere was one of pure celebration swathed in the colors of the Russian flag.
IOC President Thomas Bach declared the most expensive Games in history “a real special experience”.
He also personally thanked Vladimir Putin for his contribution to the “extraordinary success of these Winter Games”.
The opening ceremony had been a pleasingly offbeat romp through Russian art and culture. With its marching bands and 1,000-strong children’s choir singing the national anthem, this was more of a traditional show of strength.
For the Russians who wildly cheered a clean sweep of the podium in the 30 mile cross country skiing and a second gold in the bobsleigh for Alexander Zubkov on the final day of competition, a surge of sporting success helped it go with a swing.
The Russian ice hockey team had limped out of the competition to Finland at the quarter-final stage, leaving Canada to triumph over Sweden in Sunday’s final.
08:00 Ice hockey – women’s group stage. The US and defending champions Canada, expected to be the two women’s ice hockey finalists for the fourth time in five Games, begin their campaigns against Finland and Switzerland respectively. (08:00 US-Finland, 13:00 Canada-Switzerland)
08:45 Snowboard – men’s slopestyle final. Canada’s Mark McMorris and US legend Shaun White were expected to feature in the battle for men’s gold until White pulled out on February 5, citing “the potential risk of injury” on a course where Norway’s Torstein Horgmo had earlier broken his collarbone. That leaves Mark McMorris – himself competing with a broken rib – and fellow Canadian Seb Toutant among the leading contenders for gold.
Sochi Winter Games 2014
11:30 Speed skating – men’s 5,000m.
14:30 Biathlon – men’s sprint.
Also: Figure skating (team event continues), luge (men’s singles, runs one and two), ski jump (men’s normal-hill qualifying).
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on Tuesday criticized Russian authorities for restricting news coverage of preparations for the Sochi Olympics.
The international journalism watchdog detailed in a report how Russian and international journalists have been harassed and prevented from covering sensitive stories in Sochi such as the abuse of migrant workers and environmental issues.
The report documented how Russian state-controlled media have been ignoring critical issues while few local journalists working for independent news outlets faced a campaign of smear and harassment.
”Russian authorities have cracked down on journalists, rights defenders, and civil activists in a way not seen since the break-up of the Soviet Union,” CPJ coordinator Nina Ognianova said in a statement.
CPJ criticized Russian authorities for restricting news coverage of preparations for the Sochi Olympics
There was no immediate response from Russian authorities to the criticism leveled by CPJ.
Months before the start of the games, journalists and activists were detained and some of them put on trial. Svetlana Kravchenko of the Caucasian Knot website, a prominent local journalist who has covered environmental travesties in Sochi and the heavy-handed tactics of local officials, was tried and found guilty of beating up a security guard.
Rights groups including Human Right Watch called local authorities responsible for the campaign of harassment against journalists and activists. Local authorities insist that criminal prosecution against members of the public including journalists is a matter of law enforcement agencies and is in no way politicized.
Sochi will host the Winter Games between February 7 and 23.