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Olympics-Russian ice hockey mania sweeps Games, mild weather a worry

Source: Reuters - Tue, 11 Feb 2014 16:42 GMT
Author: Reuters
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(Adds quotes, latest medals)

* Ice hockey buzz builds ahead of first men's matches

* Russian hockey team in show of unity

* Mild weather, slushy snow cause problems in mountains

* India welcomed back into Olympic fold after ban

By Mike Collett-White

SOCHI, Russia, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Attention at the Winter Olympics turned on Tuesday to the men's ice hockey competition even before a puck had been shot, as hosts Russia and fellow heavyweights Canada and the United States paraded before the world's media.

For many fans the Winter Games do not properly begin until the sticks clatter on the men's ice hockey rink, and that starts on Wednesday at the gleaming new venues of the Bolshoy Ice Dome and Shayba Arena.

On the fourth day of competition at the Feb. 7-23 Olympics, most of the action was in the mountains, where warm weather left many competitors complaining about poor snow conditions. The high number of tumbles appeared to back them up.

The final training session for Wednesday's women's downhill was cancelled due to the conditions, and ahead of the Nordic Combined competition on the same day, American Bill Demong said of the snow: "It's not even slushy, it's just mushy.

"No matter how many chemicals they use I anticipate the snow will get beaten down during the course of the race and I think it will be very tough," he told reporters.

Temperatures are expected to rise to at least 15C (59 Fahrenheit) later this week.

Despite the gripes, the contests went ahead on Tuesday and American snowboarder Shaun White, one of the best-known faces in winter sport, will be vying to retain his halfpipe title.

The women ski jumpers will also be fighting for Olympic medals for the first time late on Tuesday after a long campaign for inclusion.

ICE HOCKEY MANIA

Darya Domracheva of Belarus gave her rivals no chance as she powered to an impressive victory in biathlon's 10km pursuit, and South Korea's Lee Sang-hwa successfully defended the women's 500 metres speed skating title.

The first of eight medals to be decided on Tuesday went to teenager Dara Howell of Canada in the inaugural women's freestyle skiing slopestyle.

Several skiers crashed out spectacularly, including Howell's compatriot Yuki Tsubota, who suffered a suspected broken jaw when falling heavily on her second run of the final.

Howell paid tribute to freestyle skiing pioneer Sarah Burke, who died in a training accident in January 2012. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) earlier banned athletes from wearing stickers in her memory.

"She was such an inspiration to me and everyone else in free skiing, I just think that she would be so proud and happy," said Howell after her victory. "It's truly an honour."

It was Canada's fourth gold of the Games but they trailed in the overall table after Norway won both the men and women's cross-country sprints.

Russia lingered in sixth position with a solitary gold, two silver and three bronze medals.

The hosts are desperate to improve on their woeful performance at the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver when just three gold medals left them ranked 11th.

When the figure skating team won gold in Sochi on Sunday there was a surge of excitement across the country and beyond. That would be nothing compared to the euphoria a men's ice hockey gold would bring.

"I participated in four Olympic Games and I don't remember such an interest in ice hockey players," former goaltending great Vladislav Tretyak, now president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, told reporters.

In an 'all-for-one, one-for-all' show of unity, the entire ice hockey team showed up to face the media.

"It is a team sport and it's up to the entire team to get the gold so that is why we are here together," said Tretyak, who jointly lit the Olympic flame last week.

The American and Canadian teams had their first practice on Monday, but attention was already turning to Saturday's mouth-watering clash between the United States and Russia.

That game will bring back memories of the "miracle on ice" at Lake Placid in 1980 when a U.S. team made up of amateur and college players, stunned the dominant Soviets, who had won five of the previous six Olympic titles.

PRAYING FOR AN EARTHQUAKE

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has staked his personal and political prestige on staging a successful Games, would dearly love a home victory in that game.

The Sochi Games have cost an estimated $51 billion, the most expensive Olympics ever, although that figure has been questioned and would anyway include long term infrastructure projects in the region.

The buildup to the Games was overshadowed by threats of militant violence, an international outcry over a contentious "anti-gay propaganda" law and allegations of widespread corruption and profligacy.

Once they got underway that hostility quickly evaporated, although a militant Islamist group urged followers to pray for an earthquake in Sochi during the Olympics to avenge Muslims who died there fighting "Russian infidels".

The appeal was made by a local branch of the Caucasus Emirate, a group which is waging an insurgency for an Islamist state in Russia's North Caucasus and which called on supporters last year to attack the Games.

"We know how the Russian infidels - those who we have been fighting for centuries in the Caucasus - have become arrogant and decided to hold the Satanic Games on the ground of the companions who brought Islam," said the appeal.

"May Allah give the infidels in Sochi the last earthquake of their lives," it said.

On a more positive note, the International Olympic Committee lifted a ban on the Indian Olympic Association, which was suspended when a corruption-tainted official was voted in as secretary general in 2012.

The decision switches on a multi-million-dollar pipeline of funds and stokes the giant nation's sporting ambitions, after chronically under-achieving on every field of play bar the cricket pitch.

It also means that the three Indian athletes in Sochi who marched under the Olympic banner in the opening ceremony will carry their own flag at the closing event. (Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann, Timothy Heritage, Ossian Shina and Steve Keating in Sochi and Nick Mulvenney, Julien Pretot, Dmitry Rogovistkiy and Philip O'Connor in Rosa Khutor)

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