SOCHI, Russia, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday declared open the 22nd Olympic Winter Games at Sochi during an ambitious if imperfect opening ceremony.
The world's best athletes who compete on ice and snow paraded into Fisht Olympic Stadium -- the first Olympic venue built exclusively for the opening and closing ceremonies -- after a spectacular display of set design including seven floating islands and five massive snowflakes drifting across the sky.
The snowflakes, heralding the arrival of the Games, gathered in the center of the arena and slowly transformed into the Olympic rings -- all but one, which failed to expand and remained in flake form, a minor snafu in an enchanting program meant to introduce 21st century Russia on the world stage.
Singers, dancers and a unique cable-supported moving set presented a tableau of Russian history including scenes of imperialism and the ensuing revolutions and Soviet era as 40,000 spectators looked on.
After Putin's announcement, dancers took to the floor twirling to the sounds of Tchaikovsky's ballet "Swan Lake," and soon thereafter the Olympic flag was ushered into place next to the flag of the Russian Federation.
Four-time major tennis champion, Sochi native and Olympic silver medalist Maria Sharapova -- Olympic torch in hand -- entered the center of the stadium running up the same ramp the athletes had used before taking their seats.
The Olympic cauldron, outside the stadium, was lit by figure skater Irina Rodnina and three-time gold medalist hockey goalie Vladislav Tretiak.
A final round of fireworks lit the night sky to the sounds of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" ballet as the athletes prepared to begin the Games in earnest.
The Sochi Games are the most expensive ($51 billion) and most heavily defended in Olympic history, with security on high alert for any terrorist activity in the volatile region on the Black Sea near the Caucasus Mountains.