Team figure skating: Big day ignites Russia's Games
SOCHI, Russia — Russia limped out of the Vancouver Games, its pride bruised from winning just 15 medals.
It was only one more than South Korea, no one's idea of a Winter Olympics powerhouse, and wasn't even good enough to crack the top 10 in the gold medals count. For a nation used to ruling the snow and ice, it would have been an embarrassment under any circumstance. But with a home Olympics in Sochi, a party Russia would pay $51 billion for, looming, the situation was dire.
Fast-forward four years, and things didn't look any better when Russia ended the first day of competition without a single medal. Not until late Sunday afternoon did they collect some bling, a bronze medal in the women's 3,000 meters in speed skating.
Just like that, however, Russia was cranking the heavy medal.
Over the next five hours, it won three more medals including its first gold, in the team figure skating event. By the time the day was over, the Russians were tied for second in the medal count with the United States, Canada and the Netherlands.
"We are very happy to be able to bring the first gold medal to Russia," ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova said. "We hope it will inspire other athletes to win more medals."
And the best part for the Russians is that they're just getting started – in Sochi and beyond.
Alexander the Great and his buddies have their first hockey game Thursday against Slovenia, a warm-up for their much-anticipated matchup two days later with the United States. There are almost two dozen medals still available in cross-country and biathlon, two of Russia's strongest events.
Figure skater Julia Lipnitskaia, 15, who clinched the team gold, is not only a contender for gold here but also the leader of a youth movement that could keep the Russian women on top of the podium for the next decade.
No wonder President Vladimir Putin was all smiles as he congratulated the figure skating team.
"The Olympic Games," ice dancer Dmitri Soloviev said, "mean the rise of Russia."
Putin was determined that Russia not be embarrassed in Sochi, sparing no expense for either his athletes or their Olympic playgrounds. Millions were pumped into training and development programs; U.S. bobsledder Steve Holcomb marveled at how the Russians seemed to show up with new sleds at every race while the Americans waited until last fall to upgrade the "Night Train" that carried them to gold in Vancouver. (The "Night Train" is still being used by the Americans, too, but by their No. 2 team.)
And if personal pride and patriotism weren't enough, the Russian government said recently that it would reward its Olympic medalists with cold, hard cash: $130,000 for gold, $76,000 for silver, $52,000 for bronze.
"(My coach) was promised a car if I won (a medal)," said Olga Vilukhina, who won silver in the women's biathlon 7.5-kilometer sprint Sunday. "Now he's going to get it, and he can choose whatever car he likes."
Nowhere are the results of Russia's resolve more striking than in figure skating, where it already has more gold medals in one event than it managed in all of Vancouver (none) and is halfway to matching its medal total from 2010.
It is all but assured of adding another medal, likely gold, to its stash this week. Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov are heavily favored to win the pairs title, and the "B team" of Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov could be a darkhorse for the podium.
The Russians also should claim medals in women's and ice dance.
"Russia will fight to the end," ice dancer Elena Ilinykh said. "Russia is the best. Russian figure skating is coming back. That's the message we want to send to the world."
If there was any doubt about the importance of Russian success in Sochi, it was erased by the presence of Putin at the Iceberg Palace on Sunday night. He may be a sports enthusiast, but you didn't see him up at slopestyle or the downhill.
He not only watched the event but also greeted the team as it came off the ice. He congratulated all of the skaters, and gave Evgeni Plushenko a big hug.
"It's the first (gold) medal for Russia this Olympics," said Plushenko, the men's gold medalist at the 2006 Olympics. "I love being first."
First, second or third. So long as it gives Russia another medal.