Sochi has dazzled the world with an opening ceremony featuring a feast of Russian music and a cast of thousands including ballet stars, acrobats, cosmonauts – and even an ex-heavyweight boxer.
The theme of the event was “Dreams of Russia”, with a young girl named Lyubov (love) guiding spectators at the packed Fisht stadium on the Black Sea coast through thousands of years of Russian history.
With the mists clearing after a spectacular opening sequence in the roofed venue, President Vladimir Putin looked on while a choir from the Sretensky Monastery sang the Russian national anthem as the flag was raised by a group of Russian cosmonauts.
A total of 240 athlete marshals glowing red, white or blue came together in the centre of the stadium to create a giant Russian flag.
There was an early glitch when one of five illuminated snowflakes that were to morph into the five Olympic rings inside the arena failed to open.
The Australian team in white puffer jackets and green pants looked suitably restrained next to the likes of the Germans wearing technicolour outfits and the patchwork combination worn by the US.
But it was clear they enjoyed the experience.
“That was awesome. It was just so good I can’t explain,” said flagbearer Alex “Chumpy” Pullin.
Fellow snowboard cross athlete Belle Brockhoff offered: “It was absolutely incredible. Just before we marched out my heart was really pumping and racing. And when I got out there I thought I was going to have a heart attack!”
After the athletes’ parade, giant helium inflatables filled the stadium floor, surrounded by bouncing and tumbling acrobats, with the balloons eventually becoming the onion domes, tent roofs and gables of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.
Scores of dancers flooded the stage, with ballet stars bringing Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel “War and Peace” to life, performing in an elaborate imperial ball among giant columns.
A giant chugging steam train whistling and belching smoke entered the stadium suspended from the gantry as the story moved on to the events of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Giant former WBA heavyweight champion Nikolai Valuev played Uncle Styopa, the policeman character from a series of Soviet children’s poems as the unfolding narrative reached the mid-20th century.
Putin, who has staked so much of his personal reputation on turning the $50 billion Olympics into a success, declared the Games open as fireworks lit up the winter air above the stadium.
To the strains of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”, dancers clad in white — including internationally renowned ballerina Diana Vishneva — swirled around the stadium floor, eventually creating the shape of a dove before opera star Anna Netrebko sang the Olympic Hymn.
Tennis star Maria Sharapova — who spent part of her child in Sochi — carried the torch into the stadium and handed it over to Olympic pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva as it made its way around a darkened stadium.
It was carried out of the stadium by former figure skater Irina Rodnina and Vladislav Tretyak, an ex-ice hockey player, and both triple Olympic gold medallists from the Soviet era.
They lit the cauldron while Stravinksy’s “Firebird Suite” filled the stadium accompanied by more fireworks in a breathtaking climax to the ceremony.