Russian President Vladimir Putin hoisted the flame that will burn at the Sochi 2014 Winter Games high in Red Square on Sunday, bringing his personal campaign to stage Russia’s first post-Soviet Olympics within sight of completion.
Declaring that “our shared dream is becoming reality,” Mr. Putin signalled the start of a 123-day, 65,000-kilometres torch relay that will take the flame to the North Pole and outer space before the Olympics begin in the Black Sea resort on Feb. 7.
As expected, Mr. Putin made no mention of controversies clouding the Games, such as a law critics say discriminates against gays and concerns about a ban on most rallies in Sochi, or of the Islamist insurgency that persists not far away.
The flame was flown in from Greece after being lit at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics and handed over to Russia on Saturday at the marble Athens stadium that hosted the first modern Games in 1896.
But from the jet’s arrival to Mr. Putin’s patriotic speech, the accent was on Russia and its President, who has staked his reputation on a safe, successful Sochi Olympics.
As images of rockets and ballerinas flashed across a giant screen on Red Square, rap rhymes from dancers in white, red and blue of Russia’s flag alternated with chants of “Russia! Russia!”
The choreographed celebration did not all go according to script, however.
There was a nationally televised moment of embarrassment early in the torch relay, when the flame went out as a portly former swim champion carried it through a Kremlin gate. He looked around for help and a guard standing by the pathway came to the rescue with a cigarette lighter.
The longest torch relay before a Winter Olympics will take the flame though all of Russia’s 83 regions spanning 10 time zones.
It will go to the North Pole on an atomic-powered icebreaker; to Europe’s highest peak, Mount Elbrus; to the depths of Siberia’s Lake Baikal and to the International Space Station, whose crew will take the torch – unlit – on a spacewalk.
More than 90 per cent of Russia’s people will be within an hour of the flame – a way to encourage them to feel involved.
But six years after he secured the 2014 Games for Sochi with an impassioned pitch, it is Mr. Putin – who turns 61 on Monday – who is the most invested in making the only Olympics staged in an independent Russia a success. Mr. Putin has faced international criticism over a law he signed this year prohibiting the spread of gay “propaganda” among minors, which activists and Western governments say is discriminatory.and curtails basic human freedoms
Critics have also questioned the $50-billion cost and the wisdom of holding the Winter Games in a subtropical locale, and have called a security decree Mr. Putin signed draconian because it restricts movement and bans rallies unrelated to the Olympics.