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Olympics: Russia prepares glitzy opening for Games

Russia on Friday launches one of the most controversial Winter Olympics in history spearheaded by President Vladimir Putin, with a spectacular opening ceremony aiming to impress a sceptical world it is a worthy host.

SOCHI, Russia: Russia on Friday launches one of the most controversial Winter Olympics in history spearheaded by President Vladimir Putin, with a spectacular opening ceremony aiming to impress a sceptical world it is a worthy host.

After a build-up dogged by concerns over security, gay rights and construction delays, Russians will be happy to see the spectacular new Fisht Stadium on the shores of the Black Sea burst into light at 2014 local time (1614 GMT) for the start of the ceremony.

Security concerns intensified as the United States announced a temporary ban on liquids and gels in hand luggage on Russia-bound flights, following a warning that militants could stuff explosives into toothpaste.

But President Barack Obama said Moscow has an "enormous stake" in thwarting terror at the Games and Secretary of State John Kerry said if his own daughter wanted to attend Sochi, "I'd say go".

The first sporting action got under way on Thursday, with Russian veteran Yevgeny Plushenko rolling back the years to help the Olympic hosts lead the new team figure skating competition. Snowboarders and freestyle skiers also started competition.

Putin, who has championed the Sochi Games from the bid victory in 2007, will be at the ceremony along with more than 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 embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who is facing a protest uprising at home.

With an estimated price tag of $50 billion for building facilities and infrastructure in the underdeveloped southern Russian region, the Games are the most expensive in history and also among the most controversial.

Obama and a host of key EU leaders will be absent, in what is seen by some as a snub to Russia after it passed a widely-condemned law banning the spread of gay propaganda to minors.

The producer of the opening, Russian TV boss Konstantin Ernst, said the ceremony at the 40,000 seat stadium would be a "visiting card" for Russia and would show a "journey to the depths of our history".

Ending days of speculation, Ernst revealed that Russian female pop duo Tatu, who are known for their raunchy and sometimes lesbian-tinged music videos, would perform at the pre-show.

Meanwhile, excerpts from a recording of their hit song "Nas Ne Dogonyat" ("Not Gonna Get Us") will be played during the ceremony itself.

Although both girls are heterosexual, their involvement could be seen as a coded riposte to Western allegations that Russia is intolerant of homosexuality.

But Enrst insisted that the group was simply being used as it was one of very few Russian pop bands known abroad. "We can't boast such popular pop groups like London," he said.

He revealed world-famous Russian soprano Anna Netrebko would perform the Olympic Hymn in Russian during the ceremony. However, who will light the Olympic cauldron is the "biggest secret", Ernst said.

Russia's team will be led out by flag-bearer Alexander Zubkov, a bobsleigh pilot and one of the most respected sportsmen in the country who has represented Russia in the sport at every Winter Olympics since Salt Lake City in 2002.

For many older Russians, the ceremony may bring a pang of nostalgia for the 1980 Moscow Summer Games in the Soviet era, which are still remembered fondly, in particular for the mascot Misha the bear.

But it remains to be seen whether the Sochi opening ceremony will shift the cloud of controversy that has hung over the Games.

In a symbolic gesture, Google marked the Winter Games by flying the gay flag Thursday in a search page Doodle that linked to a call for equality in the Olympic Charter.

There has also been criticism that not all the facilities were ready on time, in particular accommodation for media.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach admitted there "there is a small hiccup here or there" but said that so far operations were going smoothly.

"So we can look to tonight full of anticipation and excitement that we will have a great opening ceremony for a great Olympic Games," he said.

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