SOCHI, RUSSIA – During the runup to the Sochi Winter Games, it seemed the conversation revolved around everything but sports. There were the stray dogs. The broken hotel rooms. The extravagant expense. The human-rights issues. The balmy weather.
Then the curtain rose, and the athletes became the center of attention for 16 days. A record 88 countries participated in Sochi, with 10 reaching double-digit medal totals as more nations shared the bounty.
Some things followed patterns of the past. Perennial Winter Games power Norway is tied for the lead among all nations with 11 gold medals and is third in the overall count with 26. Rumors of judging improprieties clouded figure skating, the Dutch owned the speedskating venue and Germany won all four gold medals in luge.
But there were a few surprises, too. Snowboarding king Shaun White was deposed, the United States won its first gold medal in ice dancing and a newly resurgent Russia raced to the top of the medals table. With one day to go, here are some of the highlights of the Sochi Olympic Games.
Russian to gold
Much was made of the fact that Russia spent $51 billion on preparations for the Games, more than all previous Winter Olympics combined. It also pumped $86 million per year for seven years into its winter sports federations to groom athletes for their turn on the home stage. That investment has bought 29 medals so far, the most of any nation, and 11 golds.
The Russians flopped miserably four years ago, finishing 11th on the Vancouver medals table with three golds and 15 overall. The country’s athletes faced immense pressure in Sochi to please citizens eager to show off to the world. Russia lost out on the medal deemed most important when its men’s hockey team lost in the quarterfinals, but Adelina Sotnikova became its first women’s figure skating champion, and short-track speedskater Victor An won three golds and a bronze, the second-biggest individual haul in Sochi.
No one does speedskating like the Dutch, who bring two things to every Olympics: hordes of fans clad in the national color, and an army of the world’s fastest skaters. The Oranje burned up the track in Sochi, winning 23 of 36 medals awarded in the sport and sweeping the podium in four races. They medaled in all 12 events and became the first nation to win eight gold medals in one sport; Ireen Wust collected two golds and three silvers, the best individual performance in Sochi.
The U.S. could only look on with envy. Athletes in the country’s most successful Winter Olympic sport left Sochi empty-handed, with their biggest headlines generated by controversy over their racing suits and preparation strategy. Coach Matt Kooreman tried to keep perspective. “The world is not going to end,” he said. “But it is going orange.”
Down the pipes
The biggest upset of the Games came early, when White failed to medal in men’s snowboard halfpipe. It seemed a foregone conclusion that the two-time Olympic gold medalist just needed to show up in Sochi to collect No. 3, which would have made him the first American man to win three golds in one Olympic event.
White was outdone by the ebullient Swiss athlete Iouri Podladtchikov. The man known as I-Pod admitted that he invented his signature trick, the “Yolo” — which includes two flips and four twists — to impress a girl. It didn’t work; she never called him. But it did win him Olympic gold when he performed it better than White, whose own spin on the Yolo couldn’t match the original.
The U.S. failed to medal in men’s halfpipe for the first time ever, prompting rider Danny Davis to say, “We let America down.” But White wasn’t the only U.S. star to flame out. Speedskater Shani Davis and cross-country skier Kikkan Randall also came away without the medals they were favored to win.
Skinny ski superstars
Cross-country skiing is to Norway what speedskating is to The Netherlands: a national obsession and an Olympic gold mine. It has won 17 medals in Sochi in cross-country and biathlon, including eight golds, and two of its athletes became part of Olympic lore.
Ole Einar Bjoerndalen ended his biathlon career with a pair of gold medals, running his personal medal count to 13 and surpassing countryman Bjorn Daehlie as the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time. Bjoerndalen also equaled Daehlie’s Winter Games record of eight golds. Marit Bjoergen racked up three gold medals, tying her for the most golds won at these Games; her 10 career medals and six golds are Winter Olympics records for women.
There already is a statue of Bjoerndalen in Modum, Norway, and he was congratulated after his final medal by the king of Norway. “There is no word to describe what he did,” said fellow biathlete Jean Guillaume Beatrix of France. “He’s a unique champion.”
Two for the ages
The U.S. came to Sochi hoping to win twin golds in men’s and women’s hockey. Neither team got the medal it wanted, but they created two of the signature moments of these Games.
The women lost to Canada 3-2 in overtime in the gold-medal game, earning their third Olympic silver. The two rivals always put on a good show, but Thursday’s tense, thrilling matchup demonstrated that the world’s best female players have reached new heights over the past four years.
The men’s preliminary-round game against Russia lived up to its billing. With seemingly all of Sochi glued to its TV sets — and millions of American fans doing the same, 6,000 miles away — a tooth-and-nail battle extended through overtime to a shootout. Warroad’s T.J. Oshie sealed a 3-2 victory with four goals in one of the great individual performances of the Sochi Games, earning instant stardom and a congratulatory tweet from President Obama.
A new judging system instituted after a scandal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games was supposed to end the back-door dealing and corruption that tainted figure skating. The Sochi Games brought new allegations that the fix was in, casting an ugly shadow over some beautiful skating.
Kim Yu-na of South Korea, the 2010 Olympic champion, finished second to Sotnikova, sparking accusations that the judging panel favored the Russian. There also were rumors that American and Russian judges were conspiring to rig the outcomes of the ice dancing and team competitions. Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. were able to rise above it, topping a loaded field to win the country’s first Olympic gold in ice dancing. And Kim handled her silver with grace, mirroring her final Olympic performance.