Preceded by a quirky show to the strains of Tchaikovsky and followed by a blinding fireworks display outside the hulking yet half-empty Luzhniki Stadium, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the 14th world athletics championships in Moscow open on Saturday.
“I declare the 14th world athletics championships in Moscow open,” said a beaming Putin in a sharp black suit. “With all my soul, I welcome you to this wonderful opening ceremony for this excellent festival.”
He added: “Here at the Luzhniki arena, we expect to witness new outstanding achievements … I’m sure that the 14th world athletics championships will present us with new stars, new records and positive emotions.”
The world championships are the biggest athletics event in Russia since Moscow 1980 Olympics and form part of a series of huge sports events to be staged in Russia this decade, including next year’s Winter Olympics and the 2018 football World Cup.
Running through August 18 at the same venue that hosted the 1980 Games, the championships boast a record 1,907 athletes from 206 countries.
The first day of competition ended just before the opening ceremony, with Britain’s Mo Farah winning gold in the 10,000m and Edna Kiplagat of Kenya triumphing in the women’s marathon.
The opening ceremony was set to music by Russian composers Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, and featured a tour through the sometimes-overlooked aspects of the country’s history.
Famous historical figures such as Dmitry Mendeleev, composer of the periodic table, rubbed shoulders with lesser known names like 1930s documentary film pioneer Dziga Vertov and 19th century space flight theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.
Hundreds of young people dressed in white formed intricate patterns in the center the field, dancing to a remixed version of Swan Lake and even forming a complete representation of the various lines of Moscow’s subway system.
World athletics chief Lamine Diack used his opening comments to warn the competitors that the International Association of Athletics Federations would take a zero-tolerance line on doping, a reference to the pre-championship suspensions of sprinters Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell.
Minimum doping bans were doubled to four years last week, but Diack added that: “In any event, the IAAF remains vigilant and we will make use of every method … to make sure that doping never remains unpunished,” he said.
At the same time, there is a debate over Russia’s suitability to host major sporting events, with some gay activists calling for a boycott of next year’s Olympics in Sochi due to a law banning the promotion of homosexuality to children, which opponents consider an assault on freedom of speech.