- © RIA Novosti. Ilya Pitalev
© RIA Novosti. Ilya Pitalev
MOSCOW, October 6 (R-Sport) – President Vladimir Putin on Sunday lit a cauldron on Red Square with the Sochi 2014 Olympic flame in a grandiose and patriotic ceremony demonstrating Russia's pride in hosting February's Winter Games.
The flame landed from Greece at Moscow's Vnukovo Airport earlier Sunday and was transported to the heart of the capital by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak and chief organizer Dmitry Chernyshenko, accompanied by a convoy of hundreds of bikers.
Dressed in a long black coat, Putin walked along a red carpet and up an enormous stage erected specially on Red Square before taking a lit torch from an assistant and setting light to the cauldron.
Still holding the lit torch, Putin stood solemnly as the Russian national anthem rang out around the square before addressing the crowd from the stage.
"Today is a joyous and ceremonial day. The Olympic flame, the symbol of friendship and peace has arrived in Russia," Putin said. "The Olympics in Sochi really have become a shared task and a shared dream that is becoming a reality."
The flame embarked on a mini-tour of the Kremlin before Russia's most decorated synchronized swimmer Anastasia Davydova sets off as the first torchbearer of the Moscow leg on Monday.
Putin helped light the torch for the first stage of the Kremlin tour featuring 11 torchbearers who took the flame through the 530-year-old complex. They included a four-time Paralympic discus gold medalist, a World War II veteran and a former bobsledder who has taken up TV work since suffering severe injuries in a 2009 training accident.
The flame went out while it was being carried by Shavarsh Karapetyan, a famed underwater swimmer, prompting a nearby official to reignite it with an object similar to a lighter. It was not immediately clear whether the incident complied with Olympic protocol, in which the flame is usually relit from a lantern containing a flame from Ancient Olympia.
The whole ceremony was infused with nationalist themes: Putin entered through an avenue of flags of Russia's 83 regions, each of which will be visited by the flame, and there were patriotic rap and dance performances.
Among those accompanying the flame was Prince Albert II of Monaco, in the capacity of an International Olympic Committee representative.
The flame was originally lit at a traditional ceremony in Ancient Olympia last week and toured Greece before arriving in the Russian capital for the longest torch relay in history, a 123-day marathon across nine time zones.
"This relay will be unique, it will cover 65,000 kilometers and will visit all of our regions, and will show Russia to the world as it is, and as it appears to its people," Putin said. "Our multiethnic people, a people united by a common goal and by pride in their country."
"I'm sure that the relay will fire up millions of people and that the Olympic torch, based on the magical firebird, will delight people across our country. Bon voyage, Olympic flame, and good luck!"
Over the next two days, the torch will travel around Moscow, carried by around 300 torchbearers, including hockey legend Vyacheslav Fetisov and other Olympic champions like figure skater Irina Rodnina, and gymnast Svetlana Khorkina. Russian Olympic Committee president Alexander Zhukov is also set to take part.
The relay will then veer north to St. Petersburg before flying to Russia’s Far East and eventually looping around the Kamchatka Peninsula, down to Vladivostok and back across southern Siberia via Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake.
Other high points include a trip up Russia’s highest mountain, Elbrus, in sub-zero temperatures and the sending of an unlit torch into space. That torch will later be used to light the cauldron at the Fisht Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony February 7.
On its way through more than 2,900 towns in Russia’s 83 regions, the torch will make its way back into European Russia, winding down to the Black Sea resort of Sochi for the opening ceremony.
The Sochi Games are Putin's pet project. He lobbied members of the International Olympic Committee personally in a bid to bring the Winter edition to Russia for the first time, and has since kept a close eye on preparations.