Russia has laid on a glittering closing ceremony in Sochi to draw the curtain on the Winter Paralympic Games hailed as the “best ever” but held under the long shadow of the standoff over Crimea.
The ceremony took place on the same day as the controversial referendum in Crimea on the Ukrainian region – just across the Black Sea from Sochi – becoming part of Russia, underlining how the spectre of the Ukraine crisis has never been far from these Games.
The closing ceremony at the Fisht stadium in Sochi, attended by President Vladimir Putin, marked the end of Russia’s Olympics which began on February 7 with the opening ceremony for the Olympic Winter Games.
The fire in the Olympic cauldron was extinguished and the flag given to the next Winter Olympic hosts PyeongChang in South Korea, bringing a close to a journey that began in 2007 when Putin won the right to host the Winter Games.
Putin, who spearheaded the bid to host both the Olympic Winter Games and the Winter Paralympic Games, was present in the VIP stands at the closing ceremony but in line with protocol did not make any comment.
The hosts basked in the glory of easily topping the medals table with 30 golds, well ahead of second placed Germany who won nine. Ukraine also performed strongly, coming fourth with five golds.
In a huge compliment to Russia, International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President Sir Philip Craven closed the Games by declaring them the “best Paralympic Winter Games ever”.
He said that the Paralympic spirit had “united and infected us all in Sochi” and the Games were so special that “no-one wants them to end”.
But he also said that Sochi had with the Paralympics been “transformed into a barrier-free city” and had become a model for the rest of Russia.
“Do you sense a greater degree of liberation? Well I do, I can tell you,” he said to cheers from the crowd.
The closing ceremony began with a dazzling choreographed routine of wheelchairs as dancers soared on wires high above and continued with dancers defying disabilities to perform astonishing routines like Cossack dances in an out of wheelchairs.
Perhaps the biggest highlight came when star Russian Paralympian Alexei Chuvashev rose from his wheelchair to climb a pole high above the stadium’s field.
Chuvashev lost both his legs during an operation against militants in Chechnya in 2008 but has now become a top Paralympic rower, winning bronze at London 2012 in adaptive rowing.
He climbed the pole using his vast upper body strength towards vast letters hung above the stadium spelling the word “impossible”.
He nudged an apostrophe into position to make the world read: “I’m possible.”
The eclectic closing ceremony mixed rock music, imaged inspired by artists like the Russian abstract master Wassily Kandinsky and classic tracks by the likes of Sergei Prokofiev.
Yet the Games also never escaped the shadow of the standoff in Ukraine, where pro-Russia forces seized the Crimea peninsula in defiance of the international community.
In a symbolic but low-key protest, Ukrainian athletes had throughout the Games covered their medals with the palms of their hands at award ceremonies.
Putin had earlier thanked sporting officials “for keeping the Paralympics away from politics”.