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Olympics-Eyes on ice with big hockey clash, US speed skaters' suit switch

Source: Reuters - Sat, 15 Feb 2014 12:34 GMT
Author: Reuters
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(Adds injury to Russian skier, latest medal)

* American, Russian men's ice hockey teams meet

* U.S. speed skaters switch to old suits after failures

* Fenninger wins women's super-G for Austria

* Sweden stuns with women's cross-country relay win

* Russian skicross racer seriously hurt in training

By Mike Collett-White

SOCHI, Russia, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Russia meets the United States in men's ice hockey at the Winter Olympics on Saturday in a clash redolent of rivalries past, while the American speed skating team are hoping a change of suits brings a change in fortunes.

The ice hockey qualifier at the futuristic Bolshoy Ice Dome by the shores of the Black Sea in Sochi will not determine any medals but it will play out before a capacity crowd of around 12,000, most of them roaring on the home team.

For older fans, minds will inevitably turn to the Lake Placid Games of 1980, when a team of American college players defied the odds to beat the Soviet Union's "Big Red Machine" 4-3 and go on to win an unlikely gold.

The "Miracle on Ice" encapsulated the shift in the balance of power between Cold War foes, yet despite fundamental changes since, Russian President Vladimir Putin has evoked the period when addressing Western criticism of preparations for the Games.

That rhetoric has since faded into the background, however, as a generally well organised Olympics, and some thrilling sporting action in Sochi and in the Caucasus mountains that loom in the distance, has won over many doubters.

A relaxed Putin sipped red wine and chatted with the U.S. Olympic team in Sochi on Friday, and heaped praise on U.S. athletes, who are tied in fourth position with Norway in the medals table.

"What I like in you is that you have strong competitors in almost every discipline, in almost every event you fight for medals," said the leader, whose legacy will rest in part on whether the Games are a success.

The buildup to Russia's first Winter Olympics was far more frosty.

U.S. President Barack Obama decided not to come to Sochi and, following criticism of Putin's stance on gay rights, sent a delegation including gay officials.

There have also been accusations of widespread corruption and profligacy surrounding the Olympics, which some estimates say cost $51 billion, making them the most expensive ever held.

Putin has dismissed those charges, and some Russian officials put the price tag much lower.

SUITS OR SKATERS?

In a blow to the host nation, Russian skicross racer Maria Komissarova was seriously injured while training at the PSX Olympic skicross venue at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.

Doctors made an immediate decision to operate, and Ria Novosti news agency reported that the athlete had fractured her spine with a dislocation. The crash was the first serious athlete accident of the Sochi Games.

Back in the Olympic park, the biggest concern for the Americans was to turn around wretched form in the speed skating.

After a string of flops, the skaters plan to ditch their high-tech outfits and go back to skin suits in the hope that different apparel will drag them back into contention.

The body governing the sport and the International Olympic Committee have yet to approve the switch, but have no issue with the change as long as it complies with the rules.

"We are constantly evaluating all aspects of race preparation and execution to help our athletes improve their output and maximize their physical and psychological advantages," said U.S speed skating boss Mike Plant.

Speculation about the causes of the U.S. athletes' poor start began after double Olympic champion Shani Davis, a favourite for gold after winning three of four World Cup races this season, finished eighth in Wednesday's 1,000m event.

Women's 1,000m World Cup leader Heather Richardson and world record holder Brittany Bowe also floundered over the distance in the women's event on Thursday, leaving the United States still searching for their first medal at the Sochi oval.

Some of that concern was focused on the new "Mach 39" suits made by Under Armour, which Lockheed Martin helped design and was marketed as the fastest-ever in the sport.

All eyes will be on Davis as he goes in the men's 1,500 metres on Saturday, but he faces tough opposition from Koen Verweij, who is aiming to maintain Dutch dominance on the ice in the Adler Arena.

SEVEN GOLDS ON EIGHTH DAY

There are two golds up for grabs in the rough and tumble world of short-track speed skating on the eighth full day of competition in Sochi.

In the 1,500 metres, China's Zhou Yang defends her 2010 title, while in the men's 1,000 metres short track final, home favourite Viktor Ahn coasted into the final while his main rival, Canadian Charles Hamelin, crashed out.

Up in the mountains, Anna Fenninger maintained Austria's grip on the women's Alpine skiing super-G title, in a race where just finishing proved a big challenge for the early starters.

Snow conditions have been a major talking point throughout the Games, with clear skies and temperatures of around 14 degrees Celsius in the mountains making the surface soft and slushy, particularly later in the day.

In and around the impressive Olympic village in Sochi, people have been wandering around in T-shirts and swimming in the sea, in a surreal atmosphere for a Winter Games.

Sweden provided the latest upset when they won gold in the women's cross-country 4x5km relay, while hot favourites Norway could only manage fifth.

Russian Alexander Tretiakov is well set to win a first Russian gold in skeleton, heading into Saturday's final two heats with a useful advantage over Latvian Martins Dukurs.

Austria's ski jumping team, surprisingly shut out of the normal hill final, hopes to restore honour in the large hill event where Poland's Kamil Stoch will be the man to beat. (Additional reporting by Reuters Winter Olympic team in Sochi and Rosa Khutor)

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