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Olympics-Russia proud of Games so far, star skater's absence felt

Source: Reuters - Fri, 14 Feb 2014 12:54 GMT
Author: Reuters
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(Adds Swiss golds, parliamentary debate on Plushenko)

* Russian pride at Games as they near half way

* Exit of Russian skater robs hosts of dramatic finale

* Two Swiss golds in the mountains

* U.S. skier Bode Miller again complains of conditions

By Mike Collett-White

SOCHI, Russia, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Russian organisers are proud of a "truly great" Winter Olympics so far, although the sudden retirement of figure skater Yevgeny Plushenko has left home crowds with no-one to cheer in the climax of the men's individual event late on Friday.

The host nation's two gold medals of the Sochi Olympics have come in figure skating, and the sight and sound of a packed Iceberg Skating Palace roaring on local athletes has been one of the enduring images of the Feb. 7-23 Games.

Plushenko may not have won anyway - Japanese teenager Yuzuru Hanyu notched up a world record in the short programme - but his presence would have provided a dramatic close to the seventh day of full competition on the Black Sea coast.

After a buildup to the Games overshadowed by the threat of Islamist militant attacks, criticism of Russia's human rights record and allegations of widespread corruption, the host nation believes it has won around its doubters.

"We are modestly proud and satisfied with the achievements so far," Sochi Olympics chief Dmitry Chernyshenko told Reuters, after the International Olympic Committee praised organisers for what they said were "excellent" Games.

"But we are not relaxing," he added, as Russia's first Winter Olympics neared the halfway point. "There are still many things to do until the end of the Games and the most exciting competitions are ahead."

Such words will be music to the ears of President Vladimir Putin, who is staking his reputation on a successful Olympics.

Costs are estimated to have reached $51 billion, which would make them the most expensive Games ever held, but officials question that figure and say much of the spending has been on long term infrastructure projects that will benefit the region.

The main downside for Russia has been the lack of medals, as the team lingers in seventh place in the table.

The one event the hosts would love to win more than any other is the men's ice hockey.

The Russians will meet the United States in a mouthwatering qualifying game on Saturday that will bring memories of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" flooding back.

Thirty-four years ago at the Lake Placid Games, a group of American college players beat the then Soviet Union's "Big Red Machine" 4-3 in a mismatch of David and Goliath proportions en route to a highly unlikely gold.

PARLIAMENT DEBATES PLUSHENKO

Home hopes of success looked limited on Friday as Plushenko had been their strongest bet for a gold on a day when six titles would be decided.

When the Russian pulled out late on Thursday with a typically theatrical flourish, with him went the chance of a Russian medal, and once again invited questions over whether the 31-year-old should have been included in the Games at all.

Many believe that honour should have gone to 18-year-old Maxim Kovtun, who beat Plushenko in the Russian nationals, but his older rival controversially secured his Olympic ticket following a secret skate test.

The issue was of sufficient importance to be debated in the State Duma parliament in Moscow.

Fiery opposition lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky called Plushenko "dishonourable", and added: "Maxim Kovtun is shoved aside and this invalid has brought shame upon us."

But Sergei Neverov, a member of the ruling United Russia party which is loyal to Putin, disagreed.

"We all regret (what happened), but that is sport. We are all proud of him ... (we have) only words of thanks for his contribution to the gold medal."

MILLER COMPLAINS AGAIN

Arguably the most spectacular competition on Friday was the men's Alpine skiing super combined, contested on another dazzling day in the Caucasus mountains towering above the resort town of Sochi where the Olympic park is located.

Swiss Sandro Viletta was the surprise winner ahead Croatia's Ivica Kostelic, who took silver, and Italy's Christof Innerhofer in bronze.

Bode Miller, who won the event in 2010, finished sixth, and was one of several athletes to complain about soft snow conditions caused by unseasonably mild weather throughout the Games.

Organisers moved the event start time forward to 10am, which experts believed would suit Miller's skiing style.

"If they started at 11 everybody has crappy snow more or less," Miller said after a disappointing downhill section. "But it's always in hindsight you can make those calls."

The first ski cross training session was cancelled on Friday, the latest victim of mild temperatures which touched 15C in the afternoon.

There was more Swiss joy in the mountains when Dario Cologna won his second cross-country skiing gold medal by prevailing in the 15km classic.

Norway's Tora Berger will bid to defend the Olympic title she won in Vancouver in the women's 15km individual biathlon event after taking silver behind Darya Domracheva of Belarus in the 10km pursuit.

China looks to have a stranglehold on the women's freestyle aerials, with four major contenders posing headaches for Australia's defending champion Lydia Lassila.

Britain's Elizabeth Yarnold is in a strong position to win the women's skeleton after setting the fastest times in each of the first two heats at the Sanki Sliding Centre.

USA-1 driver Elana Meyers, among the favourites to win women's Olympic bobsleigh gold, emerged unscathed after crashing on her first official training run at the Sanki Sliding Centre. (Additional reporting by the Reuters Winter Olympics team in Sochi and Rosa Khutor; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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