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Olympics-Women skate for gold, Ukraine athlete leaves in protest

Source: Reuters - Thu, 20 Feb 2014 15:35 GMT
Author: Reuters
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(Adds quotes from athlete, Madonna, medals)

* Ukrainian athlete pulls out in political protest

* Pussy Riot protest group release new video

* Women's figure skating set for centre stage

* Bronze medal means the world to Swiss, British

By Mike Collett-White

SOCHI, Russia, Feb 20 (Reuters) - The women's figure skaters promised to provide a thrilling climax to Thursday's action at the Winter Olympics, while an athlete's decision to walk out of the Russian Games in protest was a reminder of the crisis gripping neighbouring Ukraine.

Champion Kim Yuna of South Korea aims to become only the third woman to win back-to-back Olympic titles, but a slender margin separates her from Russian Adelina Sotnikova and 2012 world champion Carolina Kostner of Italy, who is in third after the short programme.

Rising Russian star Julia Lipnitskaya failed to live up to a nation's expectations with a bad tumble that leaves the 15-year-old out of contention, and the home crowds were still smarting from Wednesday's men's ice hockey defeat by Finland.

Away from the sporting arena, alpine skier Bogdana Matsotska and her coach and father said they had withdrawn from Russia's first Winter Games in protest at Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich, who enjoys Moscow's backing, and his government.

The Ukrainians' decision came in the wake of deadly clashes between demonstrators and security forces in which at least 51 people, including 12 police, have been killed.

"I have decided not to take part in the slalom, my favourite discipline (on Friday), because of the horrible events that are happening in the capital of my Ukraine, in the Maidan (square)," 24-year-old Matsotska told Reuters Television.

"My friends are there at the Maidan, people I know, close friends of mine. To go on the start line when people are dying and when the authorities broke the main rule of the Olympic competition, which is peace - I simply cannot do it."

BLACK ARM BANDS

Some athletes from Ukraine had asked for permission to wear black armbands while competing in order to honour those killed.

The International Olympic Committee said it had not stopped them from doing so, but that the team made the decision alone.

Ukraine team officials and some competitors held a minute's silence in memory of the victims, and black ribbons were attached to Ukraine flags hanging from the balconies of their building in the athletes' village.

"I am not a political person, I am totally out of politics and political parties, but I stand against these horrible actions that Yanukovich and his government are taking against our Ukrainian people," Matsotska said.

Turmoil in Ukraine has raised uncomfortable questions for Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, who has been instrumental in shaping events there.

Nationwide demonstrations erupted in November after Yanukovich bowed to Russian pressure and pulled out of a planned trade pact with the European Union, deciding instead to accept a Kremlin bailout for the heavily indebted economy.

Putin will be desperate for the crisis not to overshadow the Games, which he has used to try to project a more modern, tolerant face of Russia through a well-organised Olympics and his own smiles, handshakes and hugs with athletes and officials.

MADONNA PRAISES PUSSY RIOT

Thrilling sporting action has generally pushed any criticism to the background, but it resurfaced this week with the detention in Sochi of members of protest group Pussy Riot, well known in the West for attacking Putin's human rights record.

They released a music video on Thursday criticising Russia's staging of the Winter Olympics that includes clips from an incident in Sochi when Cossacks beat members of the group with a whip as they tried to perform.

"The Olympics creates a space for the complete destruction of human rights in Russia," said Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the group's most prominent members who has already been jailed for her protests.

"Here we are banned from speaking out. Here everyone's rights are banned, including political activist, LGBT representatives, ecologists," she told reporters in Sochi.

The Kremlin denies cracking down on opponents. But the video, and intense media interest it has generated, have the potential to embarrass Putin.

Singer Madonna, one of many international performers who have spoken out in support of the group, expressed her admiration for its stand.

"Are you kidding me? Are the police in Russia actually whipping Pussy Riot for making music on the streets?" she wrote on Twitter.

"Is this the dark ages? GOD bless P.R. They are fearless!"

KIM SEEKS TO KEEP CROWN

In other sporting contests on Thursday, there were finals in women's ice hockey and curling, with Canada featuring in both.

The ice hockey final pits the United States against Canada, far and away the strongest teams in the sport. Canada have had the upper hand recently, beating the Americans 2-0 in the 2010 Vancouver final and 3-2 in the preliminary round in Sochi.

In curling, Canada's women face Sweden in another repeat of the 2010 final. The Swedes are seeking a third successive gold but face a tough challenge against a Canadian team who have marched to the final without suffering defeat.

Two medals were up for grabs in freestyle skiing at the Extreme Park up in the Caucasus Mountains above Sochi.

The first of those went to France's Jean-Frederic Chapuis in the men's ski cross, a thrilling spectacle of soaring jumps, tight, banked turns and painful tumbles.

American X-Games champion Maddie Bowman and Canadian runner-up Rosalind Groenewoud will start as favourites as women's ski halfpipe makes its Olympic debut.

Norway scraped the narrowest of wins in a dramatic finish to the Nordic combined men's team event, holding off Germany to grab the gold by 0.3 seconds.

That victory cements Norway's place atop the medals table with 10 golds.

But as the Games enter the home stretch, with less than four days of competition to go, winning gold was not everything.

Britain's tense win over Switzerland in the women's curling bronze medal match meant the country was now guaranteed to match its best ever Winter Games medal total of four.

And the Swiss women's ice hockey team were ecstatic when they came from behind to beat Sweden 4-3 in the bronze medal game, for their first ever podium finish in the event. (Reporting by the Reuters Olympic team in Sochi and Rosa Khutor; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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