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Putin Declares Winter Olympics Officially Open

Dancers perform amid a balloon display representing Moscow's St. Basil's Cathedral during the opening ceremony for the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 7.
Dancers perform amid a balloon display representing Moscow's St. Basil's Cathedral during the opening ceremony for the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 7.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared the 2014 Winter Olympics officially open at a ceremony in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Following the president's announcement, ice-hockey great Vladislav Tretiak and skater Irina Rodnina lit the cauldron that will burn throughout Russia's first Winter Olympics.

They were handed the torch with the Olympic flame by Alina Kabayeva, a former Olympic champion gymnast who has been rumored to be linked romantically with Putin, although the Kremlin has denied it.

Other torchbearers in the final group were wrestling champion Aleksandr Karelin, pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, and tennis star Maria Sharapova.

Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, one of the biggest names in international opera, sang the Olympic anthem during the spectacular ceremony for the event in the 40,000-capacity Fisht Stadium.

It began with a show of lights and fireworks ahead of Putin officially opening the games, which run until February 23.

In an apparent technical glitch, one of five giant snowflakes that were meant to transform into the five rings that make up the Olympic symbol failed to open during the ceremony.

The event continued with athletes from around the world marching into the venue for the opening formalities and occupying seats in the lower tier of the stadium.

The pageantry that followed depicted scenes from Russian history going back several hundred years, including a special brief focus on the founding of St. Petersburg, Putin's native city.

World leaders who were in attendance included 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 ongoing protests at home.

U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, and other leaders are not attending the Sochi Olympic Games.

PHOTO GALLERY: Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony

There was no competition scheduled for February 7. Among the events due on February 8 are the opening of the ice-hockey competition, snowboarding, Nordic skiing, speed skating, and other sports.

The games -- the most expensive ever at an estimated cost of more than $50 billion -- are taking place place amid extraordinary security measures, after twin terrorist attacks killed 34 in the city of Volgograd, 700 kilometers from Sochi, several weeks ago.

The run-up to the games has been overshadowed by controversy over the Russian government's rights record, particularly a law passed last year banning homosexual "propaganda" aimed at minors.

While saying the country is not antigay, Russian officials have warned athletes and those attending the games in Sochi not to use the event to stage protests against the controversial legislation.

As the opening ceremony started, police in Moscow detained at least 23 people, including 10 gay-rights activists who unfurled rainbow flags on Red Square and staged a protest against the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

In related news, officials say Turkey scrambled a jet fighter on February 7 to force down an airplane from Ukraine after a would-be hijacker on board demanded that the flight be diverted to Sochi.

Deputy Turkish Transport Minister Habib Soluk said the man was holding a detonator as he tried to get to the cockpit and claimed there was a bomb on board.

News outlets reported that he was overpowered by Turkish special forces who boarded the plane.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry later confirmed that the suspect was a Ukrainian citizen and he had been under the influence of alcohol.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and dpa
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