Relieved Russia strikes first Sochi gold, pressure still on

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Russia’s Julia Lipnitskaia performs in the Women’s Figure Skating Team Free Program at the Iceberg Skating Palace duringthe Sochi Winter Olympics. AFP PHOTO

Russia’s Julia Lipnitskaia performs in the Women’s Figure Skating Team Free Program at the Iceberg Skating Palace duringthe Sochi Winter Olympics. AFP PHOTO

SOCHI, Russia: A relieved Russia celebrated winning its first medals of the Sochi Winter Olympics, as a public and political elite hungry for large scale success avidly awaited more.

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Russia won gold in the team figure skating and picked up three other medals on the second day of competition, restoring pride after failing to win a single medal on day one.

Russia will see the team skating gold as a confirmation that it has regained some of its domination in figure skating, which it lost after the fall of the USSR partly because many of the very best Russian coaches took their talents abroad.

The event not only confirmed that talismanic star Yevgeny Plushenko, 31, was back to something like top form but launched an indisputable new Russian star in the tiny shape of Yulia Lipnitskaia, 15, who brought President Vladimir Putin to his feet with her performance in the Iceberg Arena.

The Russian team had a nervous start to medal competitions on Saturday, becoming the first host nation to go through a first day without a medal since Japan in the Nagano Games 1998.

Its woes were summed up when biathlon star Anton Shipulin looked like he was on course for at least a medal but then sprayed his final standing shot wide.

“I saw the medal and missed it. My dream of many years was decided,” he said, giving a sense of the pressure Russian athletes are under.

But the breakthrough came Sunday afternoon in the women’s 3,000 speed skating where Olga Graf raced to a surprise bronze that raised the roof of the Adler Arena.

Graf was so overcome with joy that she zipped her skin suit down to her waist, momentarily forgetting she was wearing nothing underneath and showing a little more than she intended.

“We are not supposed to wear even a T-shirt underneath so it’s not recommended to unzip in public. But I forgot about this!” she told the Sport Express daily.

This was followed by silver for Olga Vilukhina in the women’s biathlon sprint, a huge boost for the embattled team in the second most popular winter sport in Russia after ice hockey.

In a score for the older generation, veteran luger Albert Demchenko, 42, fed off home support and knowledge of the new track to also win silver.

But not all was rosy for Russia, in a Games that will set public perceptions of Russian sport for years to come after the debacle of Vancouver 2010 where it won just three golds.

Its sports bosses could once again lament the “one that got away” after Russian-born Slovak Anastasiya Kuzmina retained her biathlon Olympic sprint title.

Kuzmina, Shipulin’s sister, began her life as a Russian biathlete but moved to Slovakia feeling that her sporting career could go no further in her home country.

“The [Russian] trainers did not notice Anastasiya, even though she was already developing when she went to Slovakia,” legendary Soviet and Russian biathlete Sergei Chepikov lamented to Sovietsky Sport.

Meanwhile, Russia’s cross country skiers failed to win a medal in the Nordic skiathlon and ended up in a bitter row with their Norwegian rivals.

Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway and Maxim Vylegzhanin of Russia engaged in a titanic struggle for bronze with the Norwegian winning by a ski tip but appearing to cut up the Russian’s path in the process.

After a protest from Russia, judges gave Sundby a warning for a so-called “corridor rules infraction” but did not change the results. In a sign of how every medal counts in Russia, officials said they were prepared to take the case to the Court for Arbitration in Sport.

The fearsome Norwegian cross country ski star Petter Northug, who came only 17th in the race, promptly declared: “Now it’s war.”

AFP

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