He did not parachute in, leaping from a plane like the Queen, nor did Russia's action man President offer an impression of 007 - but Vladimir Putin did not need to try to steal the limelight when this Olympic show, the most expensive the world has ever seen, was all his.

Putin demanded a wondrous launch of this 22nd edition of the Winter Olympic Games here in Sochi, and with £31 billion ($60 billion) being ploughed into making the world gasp at his "new" Russia's extraordinary reach and ambition, his wish was granted.

The ceremony, although lacking London 2012's humour and fun, proved a gasp-inducing, visual journey through his country's history. Wonderful though it was, the three-hour homage to Russian greatness was not without the odd hitch. Moments before the President took his seat in the VIP area, five giant snowflakes hanging from the roof of the Fisht Olympic Stadium were supposed to converge, morph dazzlingly into the five Olympic rings and be illuminated by fireworks.

Sadly, only four worked on cue, the fireworks had to be abandoned and when Putin strolled in with a stony face, everyone's first thought must have been for the technical operators. Heaven help whoever got that bit wrong, and what may now befall them. Still, for the rest of this impressive night, before he officially opened the Games, the tiger-hunting President looked like the cat with the cream.


He watched the gravity-defying, dreamy tableaux floating high in the arena along with a crowd of 40,000 in the biggest of those space-age venues that have sprouted from swampland on the banks of the Black Sea here in Joe Stalin's favourite resort. He was watching the coming-out party for his project that has been called "Olympiada Vladimirovna" - Vladimir's daughter - and, even if she has been caught up in a few controversies, she really did look fabulous as three billion people around the world supposedly looked on. Applauding alongside Putin was a striking figure in red: Irina Skvortsova, 25, a Russian bobsleigh racer who almost lost her life in an accident during a training session in 2009.

But if there was no Barack Obama, no David Cameron and no Angela Merkel, perhaps afraid to be associated with this controversy-packed show of strength, then that was their loss, Putin's self-satisfied look seemed to suggest.

This was Putin's vision of Russia, connected by its majestic past to an exciting future, all seen through the dreams of a young girl called "Lubov" - Russian for love - and all brought vividly to life.

And, yes, the night did include some humour. How else could you explain the presence of Tatu in the pre-ceremony show? Here were the Russian faux lesbian pop duo singing their hit Not Gonna Get Us, about the defiance of two schoolgirls in love, a curious choice considering all the outrage surrounding Russia's laws against gay rights "propaganda".

The parade of athletes needed a bit of star quality and it came in the unlikely form of Vanessa-Mae, who was among Thailand's small group of athletes. Any time a glamorous international violin superstar qualifies for the giant slalom in the winter Olympics is a good enough reason to celebrate.

Then to the climax. Maria Sharapova, the tennis player who grew up in Sochi, was among the final bearers of a torch which had been to the North Pole, up the highest mountain in Europe, to the bottom of the world's deepest lake and even into space this past four months.

Yet the ultimate honour of lighting the cauldron at the open end of the arena, which in turn ignited a flame path to a massive inferno in the Olympic Park, fell to two of Russia's all-time sporting heroes - Irina Rodnina, the figure skater, and Vladislav Tretiak, the ice hockey goalkeeper. Putin's grand games had been ignited, safely, expensively and brilliantly.