Sochi Winter Paralympics Begin

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    A general view is seen of fireworks over Fisht Olympic Stadium during the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games at Fisht Olympic Stadium on March 7, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

    Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the Winter Paralympics in Sochi on Friday.

    A lavish ceremony based on the mythical firebird of Russian folklore marked the start of the 11th Winter Paralympics, which features 547 athletes from 45 countries. It's the first time the event has been held in Russia and comes less than two weeks since the close of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

    "I declare open the Winter Paralympic Games 2014, Sochi," Putin said at the ceremony, which was snubbed by many Western political leaders and dignitaries.

    In a separate statement distributed by games organizers, Putin said: "We are proud that our country has been entrusted with the honor to hold this unique event, which has no equal for its inspirational force.

    "I wish all of the athletes success and all the best."

    Competition begins Saturday with Alpine skiing, biathlon, curling and hockey events. A Winter Paralympic record 72 gold medals are on offer.

    Continuing the patriotism of the Olympic opening a month earlier, Friday's show began with rhythmic marching by 126 dancers in the colors of the Russian flag.

    Russian classical music and dance were constant features in the ceremony, with dozens of young ballet dancers performing to Tchaikovsky's "Sugar Plum Fairy."

    There were also regular animated interludes featuring the firebird, drawn by Oscar winning animator Alexander Petrov.

    Even the Russian winter tradition of ice fishing was celebrated in a performance featuring dozens of wheelchair dancers.

    Rarely publicly visible in Russian society, disabled people played a leading role in the ceremony, led by singer Yulia Samoilova, who led a choir in performing a song entitled "Together."

    A promotional video for the Paralympics that was displayed at the end of the ceremony explicitly spoke out against discrimination on the grounds of "sexual orientation," a contentious issue in view of Russia's law banning gay "propaganda" among minors.

    Watch the Sochi 2014 Paralympi Winter Games Opening Ceremony at 12 p.m. on NBC 5.