PHOTO CREDIT: REUTERS/MARKO DJURICA
(Reuters) – Canada and Germany added to their gold medal hauls at the Winter Olympics on Monday, while Russia basked in the afterglow of its first title of the Games after the team figure skating victory captivated the host nation.
The inaugural team event, decided at a packed Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi on Sunday, was a personal triumph for President Vladimir Putin, who has staked his reputation on staging a successful Games.
State television followed the beaming 61-year-old as he congratulated and shook hands with the skaters, smiled and slapped hands with young volunteers, drank beer and urged the Russian team to go on to greater sporting heights.
“Good job guys, my congratulations to you all,” Putin said to the victorious skaters around him. “You have a lot of work ahead of you here, so don’t relax.”
Among the victorious skaters was the diminutive 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaya, who stole the show with a breathtaking performance that immediately made her one of the stars of Sochi.
After a buildup to the Olympics overshadowed by threats of militant violence, international criticism of a contentious “anti-gay propaganda” law and allegations of widespread corruption, Putin appeared delighted.
He hopes to use Russia’s first Winter Games, at $51 billion the most expensive ever held, to project the country as a resurgent nation that belongs among the world’s elite powers.
A strong performance in the sporting arena would go some way to achieving that, after Russia won only three golds in Vancouver in 2010, its lowest ever Winter Olympics tally.
On the third full day of competition, Canada lead the medals table with two golds, two silvers and one bronze, while Russia are in sixth spot.
FIVE MEDAL EVENTS
Monday’s action saw Germany Maria Hoefl-Riesch retain her Olympic super combined title with a slalom surge amidst the peaks of the Caucasus mountains towering above the main Olympic park in Sochi on the Black Sea coast.
In the high-velocity, notoriously unpredictable sport of short track, Charles Hamelin of Canada grabbed 1,500m gold before lunging over the barriers to wrap his girlfriend and team mate Marianne St-Gelais in a hug.
South Korean Mo Tae-bum is bidding to repeat his 2010 success in the speed skating 500m, and in the mountains Canadians Alexandre Bilodeau and Mikael Kingsbury are expected to fight it out for the men’s moguls title in freestyle skiing.
Forty-year-old Norwegian Ole Einar Bjoerndalen will be going for a record 13th Winter Games medal in the 12.5 km biathlon pursuit, after winning the sprint event on Saturday.
Looking further ahead over the February 7-23 Games, women ski jumpers will compete in the Olympics for the first time.
Women had petitioned to be included in every Games since Nagano in 1998, but it was not until April 2011 that the International Olympic Committee announced female athletes could compete on the normal hill in Sochi.
The clash between the U.S. and Russian men’s ice hockey teams on Saturday is a mouthwatering prospect that will bring back memories of the “miracle on ice” clash at Lake Placid in 1980 when the Americans shocked the dominant Soviets to win 4-3.
WINNING LOCALS OVER?
A Russian victory in that game would further enhance the mood among locals. Even some of those worst affected by years of disruption caused by huge infrastructure projects in Sochi appear to be won over by the gleaming new Olympic park.
“It’s just fantastic,” Sergei Klyuyev, from the Adler area where the park was built, said as he walked through with his family on Sunday, admiring the state-of-the-art stadiums.
“There’s been building work here for five years but look at all this around us. We regret nothing, not even the cost.”
Putin has also defended the Olympic project, saying it helped shield Russia from the worst of the financial crisis.
Not all Russians are convinced, however. A recent survey by independent pollster Levada showed 47 percent of Russians believe the cost of the Games has soared because funds have been embezzled or mismanaged.
Norway, bidding to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, said in Sochi on Monday it would limit its bill to around $5 billion.
Included in Russia’s eye-watering Winter Games costs is a major security operation, as Islamist militants based in nearby Chechnya and other North Caucasus regions have threatened to launch attacks on Sochi.
Some 37,000 security personnel are on high alert in and around Sochi, although officials believe the risk of militant violence is greater elsewhere in Russia.
A major attack during the Games would embarrass Putin, who launched a war to crush a rebellion in Chechnya in 1999.
Russian police killed four suspected militants in a shootout in Dagestan province, some 600 kilometres (380 miles) from Sochi on the other end of the Caucasus Mountain chain, law enforcement officials said on Monday.
There was no indication the gun fight on Saturday was connected with the Games.
(Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann and Keith Weir in Sochi, Martyn Herman andDavid Ljunggren in Rosa Khutor and Thomas Grove, Ludmila Danilova and Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Editing by Peter Rutherford)