* Putin hopes Games will improve Russia’s image
* Technical glitch mars opening ceremony
* Choice of athlete to light flame raises eyebrows
By Timothy Heritage
SOCHI, Russia, Feb 7 (Reuters) - The opening of the Winter Olympics was supposed to be a triumph for Vladimir Putin that ended months of criticism of the Russian president over gay rights and talk of corruption surrounding the Games.
But a technical glitch and the choice of an athlete who tweeted what was widely seen as a racist photo of U.S. President Barack Obama to light the Olympic flame meant it ended up stoking controversy.
Efforts by state television to conceal from viewers the moment when one of the five rings that make up the Olympic Games symbol failed to light up, and complaints by a singer that her music was used without permission, made matters even worse.
The event’s creative director, Konstantin Ernst, tried to portray it as business as usual after the technical fault meant the ring could not be illuminated by fireworks and a snowflake appeared instead. But his efforts fell flat.
“No normal person would get distracted by one snowflake that did not open from the story that is being told over two and half hours,” said Ernst, who also runs a state television channel.
“Zen Buddhists have a saying that if you have the perfectly polished ball, leave a nick in it so you can understand just how perfectly it is polished. The (opening of the) rings was the simplest technical thing. That came first and everything else went off, and this was that nick.”
Ernst also shrugged off a question from a reporter about state television’s decision to switch to a recording of the rehearsal of the opening ceremony when it became clear the fifth ring would not be illuminated.
The decision was natural and unexceptional, he said, because the most important thing was to present the world with a good performance.
Putin may not be quite so zen. He has staked his reputation on staging a safe and successful Games, despite threats from Islamist militants to disrupt them, and wants to use the Olympics to show how far Russia has come since Soviet times.
His hopes that the international criticism - particularly over a law banning the spread of “gay propaganda” among minors - will end when the sporting action begins may now be unfounded.
The choice of former figure skater Irina Rodnina as one of two people to light the Olympic flame, a great honour and sign of respect, might once have seemed straightforward.
Three times an Olympic champion, she is a national hero. Rodnina is also a member of parliament who is loyal to Putin.
But she caused an outcry in the United States last September by re-tweeting a photoshopped picture that showed Obama chewing and a hand waving a banana in front of him.
The U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, accused Rodnina at the time of “outrageous behaviour, which only brings shame to her parliament and country”.
Rodnina said she had been sent the picture by friends in the United States and added: “Freedom of speech is freedom of speech, and you should answer for your own hang-ups.”
Ernst deflected criticism of the choice of Rodnina by saying she was a great sportswoman and said he had not read the tweet.
He also defended the choice of the other five people who carried the Olympic torch at the ceremony. They included Alina Kabayeva, a gold medallist in rhythmic gymnastics whom Russian media have linked with Putin so often that the Kremlin last year issued a denial that he had secretly married her.
Also among the stars who carried the torch in the state-of-the-art Fisht stadium was Yelena Isinbayeva, whose comments defending the “gay propaganda” law last summer prompted accusations abroad that she was homophobic.
Because both have been the cause of controversy so recently, the choice of Isinbayeva and Rodnina could be seen in Washington as a snub to Obama, who is not attending the Games and sent a delegation including officials who are gay.
Although much criticised abroad, the “gay propaganda” law is popular among Russians and was part of Putin’s efforts to rally support among socially conservative voters after protests.
Standing up to the West goes down well with voters and is a trump card which the former KGB spy plays often.
The other sour note was sounded by Zemfira, a popular Russian singer who said one of her songs had been used without her agreement.
“It was a really great ceremony... But what is this crap? Do you do whatever you want?” she asked of Ernst.
In Russia, the ceremony is likely to be hailed as a success and the Western media coverage seen as exaggerated.
“In my opinion, to me as a journalist, it is even insulting because it is not how journalists should do their job,” veteran television journalist Vladimir Pozner told Reuters. “It is almost like Soviet propaganda.” (Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Ken Ferris)