ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Dubbed ‘Minister for Bobsleigh’ after a brief foray into politics back home in Siberia, Alexander Zubkov proved ditching a smart suit for figure-hugging lycra was the right move by winning two-man gold at the Winter Olympics of Monday.
The Russian dominated the two-man event over the two days of competition at the Sochi Games to win his first Olympic gold at the age of 39.
Zubkov’s long road to Olympic champion at his fifth Games - he competed in luge in 1998 before winning bobsled medals in 2006 (silver) and bronze four years ago - came to fruition on a track he knows best of all.
Driving down the twists and turns of the Sanki Sliding Centre as easily as a cruise down a country lane on a Sunday afternoon, Zubkov and brakeman Alexey Voevoda were in a different class from their rivals.
Both were quick to thank the men who helped forge their success. Not Russians — Canadians.
With Russian bobsleigh scratching their heads and wondering how they could win gold in their own backyard having not triumphed since the old Soviet Union days, they turned to Canadian former Olympic champion Pierre Lueders.
Lueders won two-man gold in 1998 in Nagano and a silver eight years later in Turin. His appointment, along with compatriot Florian Linder, to head up the coaching team raised eyebrows in Canada but worked out exactly as Russia hopes.
Zubkov, who by then had quit his position as Minister of Sport for Irkutsk, had returned to competition. The arrival of Lueders was just what the man from Bratsk needed.
“Our team finally figured out what was missing and it was him,” he said. “They trained us very hard for the last two years. It was our breakthrough in training, on the track.
“Working on the push (start), getting theory done...
“We analysed this track very closely. It really showed as we knew it better than anyone else.”
Zubkov is held in such esteem in Russia that he was asked to be his country’s flagbearer at the opening ceremony.
He only accepted after consulting with his wife Tatyana and bobsleigh team mates.
“Some of them are superstitious and there is a belief that if you carry the flag you won’t win. So I asked them if they were alright with me doing it and they said, ‘Oh yes, it’s fine’, so of course I accepted,” he said.
“Now you see it’s just superstition.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford