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Olympics: Sochi action finally begins, a day ahead of opening ceremony

February 7, 2014 -- Updated 0057 GMT (0857 HKT)
British snowboarder Billy Morgan flies high as the first athlete to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics.
British snowboarder Billy Morgan flies high as the first athlete to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Action begins ahead of opening ceremony for first time in 30 years
  • Briton Billy Morgan effectively starts Sochi 2014 in slopestyle snowboarding
  • U.N. Secretary-General calls for harmonious and friendly games

(CNN) -- After all the doubts and fears, the Winter Olympics finally began on Thursday -- even if the sporting action did get underway ahead of the opening ceremony officially opening the Games.

That has not happened since the Sarajevo Olympics of 1984 but this will matter little to Great Britain's Billy Morgan, who had the honor of being the first athlete to compete in Sochi.

The snowboarder was competing in slopestyle, which is making its debut at this year's Games.

Read: After weeks of worry, Sochi starts pretty smoothly

The two other disciplines that took place on Thursday were the womens' moguls and the men's team figure skating.

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The latter event was also making its debut, in a bid to emulate the drama and emotion found in the Summer Olympics' gymnastics event, and was the highlight of the opening day for host nation Russia.

All eyes were on Yevgeny Plushenko, who may be a three-time Olympic medalist but whose presence in Sochi was marked by controversy.

Despite ruling himself out of contention for the Olympics, the 31-year-old was named as the only male figure skater in the Russian team ahead of younger colleagues, notably 18-year-old national champion Maxim Kovtun.

Inside the Iceberg Skating Palace, the 2006 Olympic gold medalist wowed the locals with a glittering performance as he put his own concerns about his aging and aching body to one side to register a personal best of 91.39.

Read: 10 reasons to love Sochi

"After 12 surgeries on my body, that I can skate in a fourth Olympics is great," said Plushenko, who has undergone surgery on his spine and knees in recent years.

"When I came on the ice, everywhere everybody was screaming and shouting. I was a bit shocked. I felt kind of dizzy."

Lapped up by the partisan spectators, with tennis star Maria Sharapova among their number, the man nicknamed 'Zhenya' could only place second -- upstaged, perhaps ironically given the nature of his selection, by a teenager.

Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu, 19, freely admits that Plushenko was his idol when growing up but he bettered his idol by some distance when scoring 97.98 points.

"Plushenko to me is a hero and it felt great just to take to the same ice as him," said Hanyu, whose Japan sit fourth in the ten-team field.

Thanks to a fine display from Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, Russia finished the day in pole position, their 19 points two better than Canada with China sitting on 15.

The ladies short program, the ice dance short dance and the pairs free skate final will take place on Saturday with men's and women's free skating and the team ice dance final on Sunday.

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In the slopestyle, Mark McMorris came into the games as one of Canada's brightest medal hopes but he failed to qualify automatically for Saturday's final and so must make it through the semifinals earlier that day.

Read: Sochi's new sports

Despite breaking a rib two weeks ago, the 20-year-old refused to blame the injury for his poor performance.

McMorris is one of nearly 3,000 athletes who will compete for 98 gold medals over the next 16 days, with athletes from 87 different countries taking part in Sochi.

'Harmony, Friendship and Mutual Respect'

On Thursday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his hopes that the international event will overcome the negative vibes that have clouded its preparations.

While security fears have dominated the international media because of simmering tensions in the nearby North Caucasus region of the country, where Islamic separatists have conducted a string of deadly attacks, a great deal of attention has also focused on Russia's anti-gay laws.

"I hope that this Olympics will be the venue where people, regardless of their sexual orientation, will really be able to enjoy harmony, friendship and mutual respect, and compete in the spirit of the Olympic movement," said the South Korean in his keynote address to the International Olympic Committee.

"That is what the Russian government is committed to, and that is what I am assured by President Putin."

Read: Billie Jean King's message to Russia's LGBT community

"I know principle six of the Olympic Charter enshrines the IOC's opposition to any form of discrimination," he added.

Ban did not specifically address the situation in Russia, whose parliament passed a hugely controversial law banning the dissemination of "gay propaganda" to minors last year.

The ruling prompted some to call for a boycott of the 2014 Games.

On Friday, more than 24 hours after the first athletes competed, Sochi will officially start with an opening ceremony about which little is known.

Tipped to feature a light show and music, organizers will be hoping that the inevitable fireworks are restricted to the sky -- and not to a games whose buildup has been anything but dazzling.

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