A touch of controversy marks Sochi opening

Figure skater who mocked Obama lights flame

A touch of controversy marks Sochi opening

: The opening of the Winter Olympics was supposed to be a triumph for Vladimir Putin that ended months of criticism of the Russian president over gay rights and talk of corruption surrounding the Games.

But a technical glitch and the choice of an athlete who tweeted what was widely seen as a racist photo of US President Barack Obama to light the Olympic flame meant it ended up stoking controversy.

Efforts by state television to conceal from viewers the moment when one of the five rings that make up the Olympic Games symbol failed to light up, and complaints by a singer that her music was used without permission, made matters even worse.

The event’s creative director, Konstantin Ernst, tried to portray it as business as usual after the technical fault meant the ring could not be illuminated by fireworks and a snowflake appeared instead.

“No normal person would get distracted by one snowflake that did not open from the story that is being told over two and half hours,” said Ernst, who also runs a state television channel.

“Zen Buddhists have a saying that if you have the perfectly polished ball, leave a nick in it so you can understand just how perfectly it is polished. The (opening of the) rings was the simplest technical thing. That came first and everything else went off, and this was that nick.”

Ernst also shrugged off a question from a reporter about state television’s decision to switch to a recording of the rehearsal of the opening ceremony when it became clear the fifth ring would not be illuminated.

The choice of former figure skater Irina Rodnina as one of two people to light the Olympic flame, a great honour and sign of respect, might once have seemed straightforward.

Three times an Olympic champion, she is a national hero. Rodnina is also a member of parliament who is loyal to Putin. But she caused an outcry in the United States last September by re-tweeting a photoshopped picture that showed Obama chewing and a hand waving a banana in front of him.

The US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, accused Rodnina at the time of “outrageous behaviour, which only brings shame to her parliament and country”.
Rodnina said she had been sent the picture by friends in the United States and added: “Freedom of speech is freedom of speech, and you should answer for your own hang-ups.”

He also defended the choice of the other five people who carried the Olympic torch at the ceremony. They included Alina Kabayeva, a gold medallist in rhythmic gymnastics whom Russian media have linked with Putin so often that the Kremlin last year issued a denial that he had secretly married her.

Also among the stars who carried the torch in the state-of-the-art Fisht stadium was Yelena Isinbayeva, whose comments defending the “gay propaganda” law last summer prompted accusations abroad that she was homophobic.

Because both have been the cause of controversy so recently, the choice of Isinbayeva and Rodnina could be seen in Washington as a snub to Obama, who is not attending the Games and sent a delegation including officials who are gay.

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