VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Swiss Didier Defago dashed out of the shadows of more fancied rivals to win the showcase men’s downhill at the Winter Olympics on Monday as China gracefully broke Russia’s astonishing 46-year grip on pairs skating gold.
Canada failed to build any momentum from Sunday’s first gold on home soil and America’s megabuck NHL ice hockey players were rapped on the knuckles for sporting politicized slogans on their helmets during training on the eve of the men’s event.
Defago, a 32-year-old veteran of the World Cup scene who had never come close to an Olympic podium before, scorched down the Dave Murray course in Whistler to become the first Swiss to land the men’s blue riband event since Pirmin Zurbriggen in 1988.
“This morning I knew that the course would suit me well,” said Defago, who eclipsed favored team mates Didier Cuche and Carlo Janka. “I have been looking for a podium for a long time.”
The event, for many the showcase of an Olympic Games, was also a tale of redemption for a more famous 32-year-old racer, American Bode Miller.
Miller, the wild child of American skiing, took the bronze medal, finishing close behind Aksel Lund Svindal from Norway.
China broke Russia’s remarkable domination of pairs figure skating dating back to the 1964 Games in Innsbruck.
Husband-and-wife duo Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo came out of retirement to lead a mesmerizing Chinese 1-2, their first gold medal in the event.
“Today’s medal is a completion of a dream after so many years,” gushed Shen, who had kissed the medal in unison with her husband while on the podium.
Job done, a grinning Shen immediately set her sights on their next goal: “It’s hard to continue skating (after today so) maybe it’s time to have a baby.” No sooner had the flotilla of NHL players arrived in Vancouver for the hotly anticipated ice hockey competition than the U.S. team found themselves in hot water.
Netminder Jonathan Quick is to be ordered by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) to remove a ‘Support Our Troops’ slogan seen on his helmet at training on Monday, a gesture that contravenes International Olympic Committee rules on political propaganda.
Team mate Ryan Miller will likewise be told to ditch a ‘Miller Time’ motif on his helmet although is hoping ‘Matt Man’, a tribute to a deceased friend, will be allowed to stay.
“We will inform the American team and their equipment managers that this is a violation of IOC rules,” IIHF spokesman Szymon Szemberg told Reuters.
The wins, and the winners’ smiling faces, were a welcome change from the dismal start to the Vancouver event, where organizers dedicated the opening ceremonies to a Georgian slider who died on a scarily fast luge track, and rain and fog forced postponements to weekend Alpine skiing events.
Games organizers held a memorial service on Monday for Georgia’s Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, before his body was flown home, while women sliders took their first competition runs down a shortened track.
South Korea’s Mo Tae-bum celebrated his 21st birthday by winning the men’s 500 meters speedskating in a contest interrupted for more than an hour after problems with the battery powered machine that resurfaces the ice.
For host nation Canada, a poor showing in the downhill, a last-gasp loss to the Americans in snowboard cross, and an out-of-the medals performance from speedskating hopeful Jeremy Wotherspoon brought locals back to earth after their first home-turf Olympic gold on Sunday.
Canada hosted Olympic Games in Montreal in 1976 and Calgary in 1988, but won no golds at either Games, so Alex Bilodeau’s moguls victory on Sunday was especially sweet.
Things were back to normal on Monday.
Vancouver skier Manuel Osborne-Paradis, a downhill favorite, lost precious ground on the lower part of the Whistler course and ended back in the pack.
Hours later U.S. boarder Seth Wescott soared past Canada’s Mike Robertson at the end of the hot-dog four-man race to nab the gold.
It was the second gold for the United States, but Switzerland lead the medals table with three golds after Monday’s victories in men’s 15km cross country and downhill.
Also coming up is the women’s downhill on Wednesday, where Americans hope for another turnaround from favorite Lindsey Vonn, a double world champion who has never won an Olympic medal.
Speaking after the racers’ first full training run, Vonn said she was shocked by the bumpy, jarring course, a route that might bode poorly for a shin injury on the mend. In a Facebook update, she said the shin was “really sore again.”
Editing by Miles Evans