Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a lit Olympic torch during a ceremony to mark the start of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic torch relay in Moscow, yesterday.
MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin hoisted the flame that will burn at the Sochi 2014 Winter Games high in Red Square yesterday, bringing his personal campaign to stage Russia’s first post-Soviet Olympics within sight of completion.
Declaring that “our shared dream is becoming reality,” Putin signaled the start of a 123-day, 65,000 km (40,000 mile) torch relay that will take the Olympic flame to the North Pole and space before the Games begin in the Black Sea resort on February 7.
The relay “will show the world Russia the way it is and the way we love it,” Putin told the crowd in an elaborate ceremony, calling it a country of diverse people “united by common aims and by pride in their great homeland.”
As expected, 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.
Protected by four small lanterns, 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 Putin’s patriotic speech, the accent was on Russia and its president, who has staked his reputation on a safe, successful Sochi Olympics - the first Winter Games it has held.
Gingerly carrying a lantern, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak stepped off the Aeroflot jet as a military band played and an honour guard of rifle-toting soldiers in woolly Astrakhan collars stood by, chins jutting high.
“We - all Russians - have a right to be proud,” Kozak said.
Escorted part way by leather-jacketed bikers from a motorcycle club whose leader is a friend of Putin’s, a convoy bore the flame into central Moscow and it was carried onto Red Square on a clear, crisp autumn afternoon.
The ceremony was shown live on state television, with a detailed, breathless narration echoing coverage of military parades and other patriotic events that Putin, who started a six-year third term in 2012, presides over.REUTERS