From swooping digital dragons and charging bison via mythical flowering ferns and giant inflatable fish, the Minsk 2019 European Games got underway on Friday night with a quirky, joyful Opening Ceremony celebrating Belarus’ status as both the ‘lungs of Europe’ and the continent’s high-tech hub.
With augmented reality to the fore, more than 3,000 square metres of moveable projection screen took centre stage in Minsk’s Dinamo Stadium. The gasps from the 22,246 fans armed with smartphones were never far away as a succession of animals and birds regularly appeared to take to the skies.
Two of Belarus’ most prominent athletes, Volha Mazuronak, winner of the marathon at the 2018 European championships, and Aliaksandr Bahdanovich, the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games sprint canoe gold medallist, set the tone from start. The duo, appearing as 10-feet high superheroes, took the audience on a tour of the country’s most prominent landmarks before sprinting into the stadium in person.
This combination of digital trickery and live action continued throughout the two hours and 40 minutes as organisers stayed true to the Games-wide promise of modesty and sustainability. Given that just one of the 12 venues – the beach soccer arena within the Olympic Sports Complex – has been built for the Games, Minsk 2019 does look on course to deliver on this laudable aim.
Welcome moments of levity – such as Belarus’ 2009 Eurovision Song Contest entrant Petr Elfimov riding around the stadium on a giant horse made of straw – showed a lightness of touch that also seems set to serve the Games well.
On the night of the summer solstice, the ancient Belarusian pagan festival of Kupalle was fittingly the thread which held the celebration together. Tales of gods and men were neatly weaved into a loud ecological message highlighting the pressing need to prioritise our natural environment.
The scenes featuring the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, the only remaining primaeval forest in Europe and home to more than 500 wild bison, brought this directive home particularly powerfully.
While Belarus naturally took centre stage, there were neat moments when the focus widened. A video segment portraying heartening instances of sporting fair-play and humanity – including the occasion hometown hero Stsiapan Papou picked up his injured rival Amil Gasimov seconds after securing sambo gold at the Baku 2015 European Games and carried him on his shoulders to the medical bay – made even several cynical old journalists sit a touch straighter in their seats.
As always, the action, which was broadcast to 148 countries worldwide and showcased 500 artists, 700 volunteers and 1,200 costumes, built towards the lighting of the flame. Named the Flame of Peace, the European Games fire has travelled all over Europe, scaling the continent’s highest peak, Mont Blanc, and criss-crossing Belarus during the past 50 days. In the process it has notched up 7,700km and been handled by 450 lucky people.
The final seven comprised a who's who of Belarus' recent sporting past, including Darya Domracheva, the nation’s most-decorated winter Olympian, 10-time tennis grand slam doubles winner and London 2012 champion Max Mirnyi and sprint sensation Yulia Nesterenko – the 100m champion at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
On the chime of huge golden bells – a lucky sound in Belarusian folklore – the chosen few stepped forward and dipped their flames in mini cauldrons which subsequently sent fire shooting up towards the endearingly old-fashioned-looking main cauldron. Adorned with golden ferns, it is the same structure which held the Olympic Flame during the Moscow 1980 Games, when Dinamo Stadium hosted football.
With the formalities now out of the way, nine full days of action featuring 15 sports and 23 disciplines kick off on Saturday morning. Stay up to date with all 200 events and every big story via the European Games News Service.