Ukraine gives Russia the cold shoulder during Sochi Winter Paralympics opening ceremony

When Russian President Vladimir Putin entered the Fisht Stadium at the beginning of the Sochi Winter Paralympics opening ceremony, he may very well have been hoping for a few hours away from the Ukraine crisis that has dominated the lead up to the Games. For the time it took to play out the opening scenes and to introduce the first 34 countries into the arena, he was given that reprieve.

But on a dramatic day when, in a powerful press conference, the Ukrainian team said it would remain at the Games for as long as Putin kept the peace with the country, that was never going to last.

Ukrainian Paralympic Committee president Valeriy Suskevich and Biathlon competitor Grygorii Vovchynskyi emotionally declared that, with a potential war brewing just 500 kilometres to the north-west of Sochi, the team would compete to make a statement to the world.

But the question was, would the team make a statement publicly in front of the man who had ordered his military to seize the Crimea peninsula, citing internal unrest in the Ukraine? That was answered when the 35th of 45 countries was called into the arena and only one person, flagbearer Mykhaylo Tkachenko, entered. The 30 other members of the team reportedly remained outside the stadium.

Tkachenko was given a remarkably loud and enthusiastic reception by the crowd, which was missing political delegations from western powers such as America, Britain and France and the Royal family that withdrew from the opening ceremony in protest at Russia's incursion into the Crimea.

The theme of the opening ceremony in Sochi was 'breaking the ice' and, showcased by dozens of performers with disabilities, aimed to create "new paths for humanity and ultimately bringing everyone together".

Russia was condemned before the Winter Olympic Games for its anti-gay laws and has been criticised for prejudice against and marginalising people with disabilities.

International Paralympic Committee president Sir Philip Craven, however, did not shirk the issue when he spoke late during the ceremony.

Referring to a time when Russia refused to host the 1980 Paralympic Games, Craven asked the crowd to "have barrier-free minds" and told the athletes that "you are the catalysts for change, you have the ability to change perceptions and alter attitudes like no other".

"Thirty-four years ago when the old Soviet Union declined the opportunity to stage the 1980 Paralympic Games in Moscow, the prospect of Russia staging its first Paralympic Games was nothing but a dream," Craven said.

The spectacular ceremony included more than 500 ballerinas, 3300 costumes, performers in large transparent spheres, singers, 300 ice fishermen, a glass organ and a giant ice-cutter ship that slid through the performers.

And there was good news for the Australian team when veteran alpine skier Cameron Rahles-Rahbula was able to lead his teammates into the arena despite being injured in a crash during a training session on Wednesday.

Rahles-Rahbula, a left-leg amputee who reversed a decision to retire so that he could compete in his fourth Games, injured his knee and has been forced out of his first two races and it is uncertain whether he will be able to take part in his other events next week.

But despite talk that the 30-year-old may use a wheel chair, Rahles-Rahbula walked ahead of his team using crutches and the flag attached to a holder on his waist.

This story Ukraine gives Russia the cold shoulder during Sochi Winter Paralympics opening ceremony first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.