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Rio Olympics Begin With First Female Iranian Flag-Bearer, More Cleared Russians

  • RFE/RL

The 2016 Summer Olympics have opened amid fanfare and partying in the host city Rio de Janeiro, featuring a diminished Russian team, Iran's first-ever woman flag-bearer, and a team from Kosovo who are in their first games.

The August 5 opening ceremony in Rio's Maracana stadium celebrated Brazil's history and natural beauty, before former marathon runner Vanderlei de Lima lit the Olympic cauldron.

The Olympics -- the first to be staged in South America -- will run until August 21.

The buildup to the event has been overshadowed by Russia’s doping scandal, an outbreak of the Zika virus, and issues with the city's security and infrastructure.

But organizers will hope the focus can now shift to the action in 28 sports, with some 10,500 athletes from a record 206 nations and a refugee team participating.

The Russian team was greeted with applause and a few jeers from the mostly Brazilian crowd when a contingent of about 160 athletes and officials marched in the opening ceremony, led by volleyball champ Sergei Tetyukhin.

"In the past two months, for sure, it affected the athletes,” Tetyukhin said. “It was a difficult situation.”

“We were ready for the worst, the whole Russian team could have been banned, but there were reasonable people that took the right decisions,” he added. “It is clear that there is a doping problem, but the clean athletes, they should not suffer from that."

After the International Olympic Committee cleared 271 Russians a day earlier to participate in the competition despite evidence of widespread, state-run doping, another eight athletes were cleared to join after successfully appealing their doping bans to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Admitted into the games at the last minute were four more Russian swimmers: Natalya Lovtsova, Darya Ustinova, Mikhail Dovganyuk, and Anastasia Krapivina.

Russian sailor Pavel Sozykin and cyclists Sergei Shilov, Ilnur Zakarin, and Olga Zabelinskaya were also cleared to compete. But cyclists Kiril Sveshnikov, Dmitry Sokolov and Dmitry Strakhov lost appeals of their doping bans and were barred from the games.

The arbitration court said it had ruled on 23 appeals cases since July 26, but still has not ruled on three Russian cases. The pending cases involve wrestlers Viktor Lebedev, and canoeists Natalia Podolskaya and Aleksandr Dyachenko.

Iran entered the spotlight on the first day of the games by assigning female archer Zahra Nemati to be its flag-bearer in the opening ceremonies.

Nemati broke new ground for her country, where strict interpretations of Islam are enforced and female fans are traditionally barred from attending male-only sporting events.

Arriving in the stadium in a wheelchair and wearing a green head covering, Nemati -- who was paralyzed in a car accident as a teenager -- will compete for Iran in both the Olympic and the Paralympic games next month.

Majlinda Kelmendi of Kosovo carries the flag in the opening ceremony.

Majlinda Kelmendi of Kosovo carries the flag in the opening ceremony.

Kosovo and South Sudan marched into the opening ceremony of an Olympic Games for the first time. The two countries were officially recognized by the IOC in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Kosovo's flag was carried by judo athlete Majlinda Kelmendi, who won a world title in 2013. She competed for Albania at the London Olympics four years ago.

"It is a very special moment, especially for the older generation in Kosovo,” Kelmendi said. “They have survived wars, they went through such hard times, and what is happening today has been a dream for a long time for all people in Kosovo."

Kosovo sent eight athletes to Rio. South Sudan has a three-athlete team.

With reporting by AP, AFP, dpa, TASS, and Reuters