SOCHI – Russia on Friday officially opens in Sochi its first ever Winter Olympics with a lavish ceremony attended by dozens of heads of state.
With a hard act to follow after show-stopping Summer Olympics opening ceremonies in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London, Russia is expected to pull out all the stops to give the world an evening to remember.
The ceremony starts, with symbolic timing, at 2014 local time (1614 GMT) in the spectacular new Fisht Stadium on the shores of the Black Sea and will mark the beginning of the Olympic game.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has spearheaded the Sochi Games from the bid in 2007, will be at the ceremony along with over 40 other heads of state and leaders.
These will include UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Their appearance will also pave the way for several days of behind-the-scenes diplomacy at the Olympics where the Kremlin hopes to strengthen ties.
US President Barack Obama and a host of key EU leaders will be absent.
'One of the most exciting ever'
Russia is expected to show the world a history of Russian culture and power.
"The ceremony will be one of the most exciting and visual ever," the head of the Sochi organising committee Dmitry Chernyshenko told reporters.
"This is a theatre with a 40,000 seat capacity" he said of the Fisht stadium. "It can allow the realisation of any creative thought."
Some of Russia's cosmonauts – including Sergei Krikalev who was famously stranded in space on the Mir station – will raise the Russian flag to the top of the stadium.
However, who will light the Olympic cauldron is a cloesly-guarded secret, with Putin insisting it is the choice of the organising committee and not for him to interfere.
Russia's team will be led out by flag-bearer Alexander Zubkov, a pilot and one of the most respected sportsmen in the country who has represented Russia at every Winter Olympics since Salt Lake City in 2002. AFP