Patriotic Putin sets long Sochi torch rally in motion
By Denis Dyomkin and Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin hoisted the flame that will burn at the Sochi 2014 Winter Games high in Red Square on Sunday, bringing his personal campaign to stage Russia's first post-Soviet Olympics within sight of completion.
Declaring that "our shared dream is becoming reality," Putin signaled the start of a 123-day, 65,000 km (40,000 mile) torch relay that will take the flame to the North Pole and outer space before the Olympics begin in the Black Sea resort on February 7.
The relay "will show the world Russia the way it is and the way we love it," Putin told the crowd in an elaborate ceremony, calling it a country of diverse people "united by common aims and by pride in their great homeland."
As expected, Putin made no mention of controversies clouding the Games, such as a law critics say discriminates against gays and concerns about a ban on most rallies in Sochi, or of the Islamist insurgency that persists not far away.
Protected by four small lanterns, the flame was flown in from Greece after being lit at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics and handed over to Russia on Saturday at the marble Athens stadium that hosted the first modern Games in 1896.
But from the jet's arrival to Putin's patriotic speech, the accent was on Russia and its president, who has staked his reputation on a safe, successful Sochi Olympics - the first Winter Games it has held.
As images of rockets and ballerinas flashed across a giant screen on Red Square, rap rhymes from dancers in white, red and blue of Russia's flag alternated with chants of "Russia! Russia!"
With the colorful onion domes of St Basil's Cathedral behind him, Putin strode across the cobbles on a red carpet as a medley that included part of imperial-era anthem "God Save the Tsar" played. Continued...