By Mike Collett-White
In a finish even a Hollywood scriptwriter would struggle to match, the women’s downhill at Russia’s Winter Olympics produced a tie for gold for the first time on Wednesday, on a thrilling fifth full day of competition.
The host nation got its second gold of the Games when Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov triumphed in the figure skating pairs competition at the Iceberg Skating Palace.
Russia won the first Olympic figure skating team event three days earlier.
Adding to the feel-good factor, complaints about slushy snow conditions in the Caucasus mountains melted away despite clear skies and mild temperatures, and down in the Olympic park on the Black Sea coast, the men’s ice hockey tournament got underway.
A few days of stunning sporting action on the snow and ice has drawn the sting out of criticism levelled at Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, who has staked his legacy on staging a successful Games.
However, supporters of an environmentalist who campaigned against ecological damage from Olympics construction work, and who lost an appeal against his sentence on Wednesday, said he was being punished for publicising problems caused by the Games.
Yevgeny Vitishko, who was convicted of damaging the regional governor’s property, will spend three years in a prison colony.
The Kremlin denies using courts for political purposes and says there are no political prisoners in Russia.
The court ruling in the city of Krasnodar, 170 km northwest of Sochi, is unlikely to deflect attention from sporting achievements for long, however, particularly after what may be remembered as Sochi’s ‘Wonder Wednesday’.
History was made when Switzerland’s Dominique Gisin and Tina Maze of Slovenia shared the women’s Olympic Alpine skiing downhill gold medal after clocking exactly the same time down the gleaming Rosa Khutor descent.
“It’s better to be two on top than one to be 1/100th behind. Two happy faces,” said Maze, Slovenia’s first Winter Games gold medallist.
Alpine skiers have shared medals before at the Olympics, but never gold.
It was the second time in two days that women athletes set a precedent at the Olympics.
On Tuesday night, women ski jumpers finally had the chance to prove their mettle, 90 years after the first men competed at a Winter Games and following a long battle for inclusion.
Going into Russia’s first Winter Games, the biggest worry was the threat of attack by Islamist militants based in the north Caucasus hundreds of kilometres to the east.
On Tuesday, a militant group urged followers to pray for an earthquake in Sochi during the Olympics to avenge Muslims who died there fighting “Russian infidels”, but as yet there has been no violence directly linked to the Games.
The cost of staging the Games, estimated at $51 billion – although that figure is disputed – and allegations of widespread corruption have also slipped from the headlines for now.
Putin came under fire after Russia introduced a law last year banning the promotion of gay propaganda among minors, which critics said encouraged anti-gay violence.
This week, Putin’s allies rallied to his defence after a satirist and prominent Kremlin critic drew a comparison between the Sochi Games and the Olympics held in Nazi Germany in 1936.
In a blog published by Ekho Moskvy radio station, Viktor Shenderovich said 15-year-old figure-skating sensation Yulia Lipnitskaya should not be used to lend legitimacy to Putin.
He drew parallels with a German shot putter who became a symbol of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, raising hackles among politicians in Russian parliament on Tuesday.
Svetlana Zhurova, a former Olympic champion speed skater, said Shenderovich’s blog “fits into the campaign against the Olympics that has unfolded in the Western media.”
For many Russians, victory in World War Two is the proudest moment in their country’s checkered 20th century history. Some 27 million Soviet citizens died in the conflict.
The more the action and excitement take hold, however, the happier Putin is likely to be, and Trankov and Volosozhar were roared on to gold by a noisy, flag-waving home crowd.
The win leaves Russia in seventh place in the medals table with two golds, while Germany lead with six.
German favourite Eric Frenzel won the Nordic Combined normal hill, landing the longest jump of the day and then mastering a slushy cross-country course to beat Japan’s Akito Watabe.
Compatriots Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt, nicknamed the ‘Bayern Express’, extended the country’s dominance in luge, and Germany could make it a clean sweep of luge golds at these Games if they wins the inaugural team relay on Thursday.
The International Olympic Committee and International Luge Federation remembered Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili, whose death from injuries in a training crash four years ago to the day at the Vancouver Games stunned the sporting world.
“We are laying flowers at the luge centre in Whistler,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said in Sochi.
Stefan Groothuis was surprised to extend the golden speed skating run of the Dutch by winning the men’s 1,000 metres title, as American Shani Davis’s bid for a rare Olympic hat-trick fell way short.
And in the women’s snowboarding halfpipe, Kaitlyn Farrington of the United States stunned three former champions to win gold by the narrowest of margins at the at Extreme Park.
The puck dropped for the start of action in the eagerly anticipated men’s ice hockey tournament, and Sweden beat the Czech Republic 4-2 and Switzerland edged out Latvia 1-0 in the opening group games.