SOCHI - The 22nd Winter Olympic Games opened on Friday night in a spectacular ceremony which was attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the invitation of his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Putin declared the Games open at the Fisht Olympic Stadium following a speech by Olympic chief Thomas Bach, who stressed "the Olympics are about building bridges to bring people together."
China's flag-bearer Tong Jian leads his country's contingent during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, February 7, 2014. [Photo/Agencies]
President Xi rose from his seat and waved to the Chinese delegation which was led into the stadium by star figure skater and flagbearer Tong Jian in the athletes parade.
Russia, for the second time, was President Xi's first foreign destination of a year. In March 2013, Xi took a state visit to Russia a few days after he took office as Chinese President.
Xi's appearance at the Sochi Olympic opening ceremony was the first attendance by a Chinese president at a major overseas sports event, signaling China's strong support for the Olympics and Russia's efforts to host the Games.
|More photos about the ceremony|
China sent a 138-member delegation including 65 athletes to the first ever winter Olympics held in Russia. The Chinese athletes will compete in alpine skiing, freestyle skiing, cross-country skiing, biathlon, speed skating, short track speed skating, figure skating, snowboard and curling.
The Chinese president met Chinese athletes and coaches earlier in the day, giving a boost to their morale.
"The Chinese people are paying great attention to you," he told the delegates, noting that they traveled a long journey to this Russian resort city for the event during the Spring Festival.
China, Xi said, has made significant progress in sports over the past years and made breakthroughs in some winter sports, but still lags behind in some others.
By delivering a successful Beijing Olympics, the Chinese people have realized their Olympic dream, the president said, while calling for continued efforts to make China a strong sports power.
Xi wished the athletes success at the Games, but added that good results are not reflected merely in the number of medals, but more in the Olympic spirit they demonstrate by constantly improving and excelling themselves.
China has won nine gold, 18 silver and 17 bronze medals since its winter Olympic debut in 1980, which included a 5-2-4 record in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics that placed the country at 7th on the final medal table.
IOC President Bach has hailed China's contributions to sports and the Olympics.
Beijing's bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics will help promote sports development and the IOC appreciates China's support for the Olympic movement, Bach said in a press conference early Friday.
Beijing is bidding for the 2022 Winter Games with the northern city of Zhangjiakou as a co-host. The other bidders are Almaty, Kazakhstan; Krakow, Poland; Lviv, Ukraine; Oslo, Norway.
"We also appreciate very much quite a few initiatives being taken by the Chinese government, with regard to the role of sport in education, with regard to sport to promote social values, and their initiatives, particularly in the new cities in China, to think also from the very beginning of planning sports infrastructure, to give not only the kids but everybody the opportunity to practise sport in their neighborhood," said Bach.
In the highlight of the opening ceremony, three-time Olympic figure skating champion Irina Rodnina and legendary ice hockey player Vladislav Tretyak lit the Olympic cauldron, culminating the Olympic flame's 65,000 kilometers journey, the longest torch relay in the winter Olympic history.
The 123-day relay has witnessed the Olympic flame reach the peak of Europe's highest mountain, travel to the North Pole, plunge into the world's deepest lake and carried into space by Russian cosmonauts.
A record 87 delegations are taking part in the Sochi Games that features 98 medal events, while three Indian athletes are competing under the Olympic flag following their national Olympic committee's suspension.