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Russia soars to gold at home Olympics

Amid the lavish arenas and bombastic ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics, it was always going to take something special for Russia’s athletes to grab the spotlight. That they did, topping the medal table for the first time in 20 years, bears testament to their talent, and the way Russian sport has been rebuilt from the ground up in time for Sochi.

Success didn’t come easily for Russia, which at the halfway point of the Games looked to be headed for failure, with just two gold medals. Source: flickr.com/sochi2014

James Ellingworth, special to RBTH

The hosting of the Games was a resounding success, defying earlier predictions that the Sochi Olympics could devolve into a fiasco.“We all have enjoyed exceptional conditions in these Olympic Winter Games,” International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said at Sunday’s closing ceremony. “Our Russian hosts had promised excellent sports venues, outstanding Olympic Villages and an impeccable organisation. Tonight we can say Russia delivered all what it had promised.”

Four years ago in Vancouver, Russian sport seemed broken. The Soviet-style production line of champions, for decades so reliable, had ground to a halt and the country finished a lowly 11th in the medal table, a place behind the largely snow-free Netherlands. All that changed in Sochi. Russia stormed to the top of the medal table, leaving traditional winter sports titans like Norway and Canada in its wake

There was a new generation of champions, led by figure skating’s ice princesses Julia Lipnitskaia (aged 15) and Adelina Sotnikova (17). There were new Russians, with naturalized South Korean speedskater Viktor Ahn winning three medals and U.S.-born snowboarder Vic Wild taking two back to his apartment in Moscow. There were also, touchingly, veteran Russian athletes like bobsled gold medalist Alexander Zubkov, 39, who leapt from also-rans to champions, their potential finally unlocked by extra funding and support.

Success didn’t come easily for Russia, which at the halfway point of the Games looked to be headed for failure, with just two gold medals, while the Olympics themselves were flooded with mocking #sochiproblems tweets. Then the jeering subsided and gold medals began to pour in, meaning the host nation finished with 13 – six of them in sports where Russia had never won gold before. The total of 33 medals of all colors outscored every Russian and Soviet Winter Olympic team in history.

Meanwhile, the expensively-built sports facilities in the Olympic Park and up in the Caucasus mountains saw plenty of action, not just from the Russian athletes. Britain matched its best-ever Winter Olympics performance from 90 years before with one gold medal for Lizzy Yarnold in the skeleton, plus one silver and two bronze medals, including the first ever British medal in a snow sport, won by snowboard slopestyler Jenny Jones. Norwegian biathlon star Ole Einar Bjoerndalen became the most decorated athlete in Winter Olympics history as his gold medals in the sprint and mixed relay took him to a career medal tally of 13, one more than the previous record holder, fellow Norwegian and cross-country skier Bjoern Daehlie managed.

On the ice of the Olympic Park’s Adler Arena, there was never-before-seen dominance by a single nation in speed skating as Dutch athletes won 8 of 12 events, taking gold, silver and bronze in four of them. Alpine skiing was one of the few events where the Russian presence was negligible, but that took nothing away from the passion of the crowd at Rosa Khutor. They were rewarded with an event unique in Olympic history as two athletes – Slovenia’s Tina Maze and Dominique Gisin of Switzerland – were awarded gold in the same event after clocking exactly the same time in the women’s downhill.

The men’s ice hockey gold medal game is the most hyped event of any Winter Olympics, especially so in Russia. With that in mind, Russia’s meek quarterfinal exit to unfancied Finland was something of a scandal, sparking a wave of angry commentary in the Russian media. However, the mostly-local crowd at the Bolshoy Ice Dome remained passionate, roaring Canada on to retain its title with a 3-0 win in the final against Sweden. That followed a Canada-U.S. semifinal which was low-scoring at 1-0 but one of the most technically brilliant games in history, played at a furiously fast pace for the full 60 minutes, with the crowd right behind the Canadians. Why Canada? A disallowed Russian goal in the group stage had helped the U.S. to beat the hosts, infuriating home fans so much they backed the Americans’ old enemies from then on.

So, after Sochi, what does the future hold for Russian sport? If Sochi is any guide, things could get better at the next Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018. One little-remarked-upon feature of the Sochi Olympics was the five gold medals won by Russian-born athletes who had switched allegiances to other countries. They were athletes who had left in the chaotic days before Sochi won the right to host the Games, when funding and support for athletes was patchy. Fast-forward four years, however, and that generation of athletes will have largely moved on, replaced by youngsters who have grown up with the lavish support of the last few years, a trend that can only boost Russia’s performances on the snow and ice of Pyeongchang.

In the end, the real #sochiproblems are for athletes of other countries – it looks like they might have to get used to Russians winning the gold.

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