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2014 Winter Paralympics underway in Sochi

The 2014 Winter Paralympics have begun in Sochi, Russia. Just one Ukraine athlete participated in the opening ceremony, amid simmering tensions over Crimea.

After all 45 teams had taken part in the opening ceremony at the Fisht Stadium on Friday, the Games were officially opened by Russian President Vladimir Putin: "I declare the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games open," he said.

Ukraine was among those nations that participated in the opening ceremony, but warned it could withdraw from the Games if Russia makes more military moves in Crimea.

The calling of the Ukraine's name was greeted with a healthy cheer, although just one of the 23-strong team's athletes who emerged - biathlete and cross-country skier Mykhaylo Tkachenko.

Mykhaylo Tkachenko, flag-bearer of the Ukrainian national team, during the parade of athletes and members of national delegations at the opening ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Paralympics. Photo: RIA

Ukraine's team made a statement by sending out just one athlete during the opening ceremony - biathlete and cross-country skier Mykhaylo Tkachenko.

In keeping with the theme of patriotism to the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics a month earlier, Friday's celebrations began with a routine involving 126 dancers in the colors of the Russian flag. Disabled dancers and singers featured prominently, with the ceremony based around the mythical firebird of Russian folklore.

In his speech at the opening ceremony, International Paralympic Committee President Phillip Craven noted the former Soviet Union's refusal to host the 1980 Summer Paralympics in conjuction with the Moscow Games: "But dreams do come true, and since winning the games seven years ago, this part of Russia has undergone a monumental transformation," he said.

Around 550 athletes will participate in the 11th Winter Paralympics, making it the biggest Games on record. There are 72 gold medals to be won before the Games close on March 16.

Germany - led out by Andrea Rothfuss - topped the medal table four years ago in Vancouver, Canada, but bring a much-changed group of athletes to Sochi.

Gone are multiple gold medal-winning athletes Verena Bentele, Gerd Schönefelder and Martin Braxenthaler due to retirement, with Rothfuss and fellow Alpine skier Anna Schaffelhuber among their team's best prospects.

Competition begins on Saturday with alpine skiing, biathlon, curling and hockey events.

ph/jr (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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