SOCHI, Russia (AP) - With a solitary Ukrainian athlete taking part in the opening ceremony, Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the Winter Paralympics in Sochi on Friday against the backdrop of his country’s military action in Crimea.
Ukraine delivered a pointed message by sending out only a single flag-bearer to represent the 23-strong team in the athletes’ parade, an apparent protest at the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
The appearance of the flagbearer, biathlete Mykhaylo Tkachenko, drew a roar from the capacity crowd at the Fisht Olympic Stadium. Entering in a wheelchair with the Ukrainian flag, he wore a serious expression and displayed no emotion.
The Ukrainian team had announced only a few hours earlier that it would not boycott the games, but said it could pull out of the 10-day event if the Crimea situation escalates.
“I declare should this happen we will leave the games,” said Valeriy Sushkevich, president of the Ukrainian Paralympic Committee. “We cannot possibly stay here in this case.”
A lavish ceremony based on the mythical firebird of Russian folklore marked the start of the 11th Winter Paralympics, which features 547 athletes from 45 countries. It’s the first time the event has been held in Russia and comes less than two weeks since the close of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
“I declare open the Winter Paralympic Games 2014, Sochi,” Putin said at the ceremony, which was snubbed by many Western political leaders and dignitaries.
In a separate statement distributed by games organizers, Putin said: “We are proud that our country has been entrusted with the honor to hold this unique event, which has no equal for its inspirational force.
“I wish all of the athletes success and all the best.”
Competition begins Saturday with Alpine skiing, biathlon, curling and hockey events. A Winter Paralympic record 72 gold medals are on offer.
Ukraine’s decision not to boycott the games came after discussions between team officials and athletes over whether to pull out in light of the crisis back home and Russia’s takeover of the Crimean peninsula.
“I don’t remember a situation when the organizing country during a Paralympics started an intervention on the territory of a country taking part,” Sushkevich added. “I don’t know what to extent the team can focus on the result now.”
He said he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday night to discuss the situation and request peace during the games. Suskevich said he did not receive any guarantees but it was important that Putin agreed to listen.
Ukraine’s decision to compete was welcomed by the International Paralympic Committee.
“We want sport to prevail and a full complement of teams to compete in what we are confident will be a fantastic Paralympic Winter Games,” IPC President Phillip Craven said.
“All week the IPC has been working closely with the Ukrainian Paralympic Committee in an effort to keep them here in Sochi. The talking point of Sochi 2014 needs to be great sport and great athletes, not global politics.”
The IPC has appealed for Russia to recognize the U.N.’s Olympic Truce, which asks warring parties to cease hostilities during the Olympics and Paralympics.
Ukraine finished fifth in the medals table at the Winter Paralympics in Vancouver in 2010, with a total of 19 medals and five gold.
Ukrainian athletes chanted “peace to Ukraine” as they apparently walked out of a flag-raising ceremony in Sochi on Thursday night. That is now under investigation by the IPC as a possible breach of rules banning political protests.
“What we’re trying to do is gather the evidence, gather the transcripts and then we will see if any steps are necessary,” IPC spokesman Craig Spence said. “If there was a political protest, obviously we’d be disappointed by that because we have said all week that this is about sport, not politics.”
In his speech at the ceremony, Craven noted that the former Soviet Union had refused to stage the Paralympics in 1980 in conjunction with the Moscow Olympics.
“But dreams do come true, and since winning the games seven years ago, this part of Russia has undergone a monumental transformation,” he said.
Continuing the patriotism of the Olympic opening a month earlier, Friday’s show began with rhythmic marching by 126 dancers in the colors of the Russian flag.
Russian classical music and dance were constant features in the ceremony, with dozens of young ballet dancers performing to Tchaikovsky’s “Sugar Plum Fairy.”
There were also regular animated interludes featuring the firebird, drawn by Oscar winning animator Alexander Petrov.
Even the Russian winter tradition of ice fishing was celebrated in a performance featuring dozens of wheelchair dancers.
Rarely publicly visible in Russian society, disabled people played a leading role in the ceremony, led by singer Yulia Samoilova, who led a choir in performing a song entitled “Together.”
A promotional video for the Paralympics that was displayed at the end of the ceremony explicitly spoke out against discrimination on the grounds of “sexual orientation,” a contentious issue in view of Russia’s law banning gay “propaganda” among minors.
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