Day 11 of the Sochi Olympics, 18 Feb 2014 Tues:
It was another action packed day on Day 11 of the Sochi Olympics as the winter athletes fought hard and furious for a chance to be on the top and make it on the podium.
First, let's begin with the events that were postponed to today due to fog:
Finally, after two postponements, the men's biathlon 15km mass start got off with a bang and ended with an explosive photo finish! It was the most exciting race ending in the biathlon events so far. Even with the snow falling and some of the competitors crashing, heavily favored Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway battled France's Martin Fourcade, who'd all ready won 2 golds from the 12.5km pursuit and 20km individual event. And right before the crowd, Svendsen pulled ahead of Fourcade, creating a space between them, and he crossed the finish line, raising his hands up, celebrating what he thought was a clear victory. But he celebrated too early because he failed to see that right beside him, Fourcade had lunged forward and his skis crossed the finish line the same time as Svendsen at 4 minutes 29.1 seconds! It was a tie! The crowd goes wild! A photo finish!
So how do you decide the winner of when both skiers skis cross the finish line at the same time? The rule is the first person's boot to cross the finish line gets the win. And Svendsen's boot crossed first by a very tiny margin! Svendsen can sigh relief for getting gold and putting the Norwegian fears and conspiracy theories of ski wax troubles to rest. Fourcade is awarded silver for his mighty efforts. And Czech Republic's Ondrej Moravec finished 18.3 seconds behind the leaders, claiming the bronze. What an exciting end for the race that's been postponed twice due to fog and unfavorable conditions.
I am particularly impressed with Fourcade because he was ill with sinusitis, but decided at the last minute to compete anyway. And he overcame a rifle problem at the first shooting, where he had to reload 3 times before his rifle would fire correctly. Fourcade has two more chances to medal at Wednesday's mixed relay and Saturday's men's relay. He is on track to match or break a record set by fellow Frenchman Jean-Claude Killy, who won 3 golds at Grenoble 1968.
The other event contested today after the fog delay was the fast and furious sport of men's snowboard cross. Like short track speed skating, this is a very unpredictable sport, as the snowboarders race down a course navigating turns and hills and trying to avoid slips and falls that are ever present in the race. Right out of the 1/8 finals, the medal favorites were knocked out by either crashes or falls. That meant the way to the podium was opened to the relative unknowns in the sport.
And by the time the final race arrived, Nikolay Olyunin of Russia had dominated the elimination rounds and was leading the race. He was a clear leader all throughout the race, right up until the last turn, when Pierre Vaultier of France overtakes Olyunin and uses that momentum to cross the finish line first, taking the gold medal. Nikolay Olyunin crosses to silver. And in a bold and clever move, Alex Deibold of US seizes an opportunity at a turn and edges out Paul-Henri De Le Rue of France, moving himself from 4th to 3rd in the last quarter of the race, earning the US the bronze.
I am particularly thrilled with Alex Deibold's bronze, because he wasn't considered a medal contender coming into these games. He isn't even on the USA's top tier Snowboarding A team, which gets financial support from US Snowboarding sponsorship. Four years ago, he was at Vancouver 2010, not competing, but working hard and long hours as a wax tech, getting the boards ready for the A team. And while the top American snowboarders had sponsorship, Deibold had to work long hours in the summer to make enough money to compete on the snowboarding circuit. It is very uplifting and satisfying to see someone work so hard and finally come so far to land on the podium. And when he won his bronze, his A team fellow Americans dog-piled on him to cheer his victory, knowing just how hard and how far he has come.
The weather continued to play havoc for the athletes. In the women's giant slalom, rain slowed the first run; then snow and fog affected the second run of women racing downhill while going around gates. Rising above the challenging conditions, Slovenian Tina Maze wins with her combined time, taking her second gold, after having won the downhill event earlier. Austria’s Anna Fenninger, wins silver, adding to her super G gold win. Germany's Viktoria Rebensburg, defending Vancouver 2010 champion, skis to bronze.
The rain also made the course slippery at the men's nordic combined large hill event. Here, the men ski jumped off a large hill first to determine their start times. The highest points winner gets to cross country ski the 10km first, and every point he scores higher than the next person adds a 4 second delay to the start of that next person. There was another scary crash on the large hill during the ski jumps. This time, it was Japan's Taihei Kato, who landed awkwardly and lost his left ski, then fell hard and broke his left arm in crash in front of the horrified spectators. He was taken to the hospital.
Normal hill nordic combined gold medal winner Eric Frenzel of Germany had the best jump, but he was suffering from a virus. Even though Frenzel started the ski race first, he couldn't keep pace with the other stronger, healthier skiers. There was some drama, as some of the medal contenders crashed or slipped and fell on the slippery course because of the rain. And in the exciting last 100 yards of the race, Norway's Joergen Graabak hit the gas and broke away from the 5 man lead group! Graabak finished the 10km race at 23 minutes, 27.5 seconds to win gold, edging out fellow Norwegian Magnus Hovdal Moan who follows behind by 0.6 seconds to win the silver; and Fabian Riessle of Germany was 1.6 seconds behind Graabak and took the bronze.
Heavy snow plagued the Olympics debut of the men's freestyle skiing halfpipe, affecting visibility and making conditions difficult to ski on in the halfpipe. The accumulation of snow made it very difficult for the skiers to gain speed needed to make their high jumps and spins. Consequently, a lot of the top contenders crashed and the skiers had to dial back the high flying spins and flips that defines the sport. There were several serious crashes, including American Lyman Currier who crashed on his second qualifying run in men’s ski halfpipe and slid down the pipe grasping at his left knee, moaning in pain as the crowd watched in horror and the medical staff rushed to his aid. At the hospital, it was reported that he suffered a left knee injury--he tore his left ACL.
World champion David Wise of the US held nothing back and skied a fantastic 1st run in the final that put him at the top of the pack. Which was a good thing, because in his second and final run, he crashed! He would have to wait anxiously as the rest of the skiers completed their second run. The highest scoring of the two run wins the event. And when the other skiers crashed or failed to score higher at the end of the second run, David Wise became the first person to win gold in the men's freestyle skiing halfpipe. Canada's Mike Riddle landed a respectable run to silver. And France's Kevin Rolland jumps to bronze.
Meanwhile in the indoor sports where weather had no effect, there was much excitement and disappointment and tears of joy and anguish.
Always chaotic and unpredictable, short track speed skating was contested in the women's 3000m relay. The Chinese and the South Koreans were heavily favored to battle for gold. The Canadians and Italians would have to race for bronze. Four years ago at Vancouver 2010, the South Korean women crossed the finish line first, but were disqualified, so they were left in tears as the Chinese women were upgraded to gold. This time, the top ranked South Korean women powered through laps cleanly and traded leads with China during the race. But at the last turn of the final lap chaos erupted!
Shim Suk-hee of South Korea overtakes the lead from China's Li Jianrou, who wasn't supposed to race the final leg. The Chinese women fell apart at the critical last moment! The last exchange for China was supposed to be Fan Kexin, but she wasn't ready, so Li had to push ahead and scramble for a second place across the finish line! However, Zhou Yang of China lingered too long on the ice during one of the exchanges after pushing one of her teammates, causing a South Korean skater to go around her. That meant a disqualification for China! They are off the podium and Canada advances to second and Italy makes the podium to third! Oh, the shock and pain and agony for China! Li Jianrou, Fan Kexin, Li, Liu Qiuhong and Zhou Yang of China are disqualified!
And what joy for the South Koreans, Canadians, and Italians who make the podium! South Korea's Shim Suk-hee, Park Seung-hi, Cho Ha-ri, and Kim Alang take a hard fought gold; it is a wonderful additon to him Suk-hee's silver that she won in the 1500m after surviving a crash in that race last weekend. Canada's Marie-Eve Drolet, Jessica Hewitt, Valerie Maltais and Marianne St-Gelais score the silver. Italy's Arianna Fontana, Lucia Peretti, Martina Valcepina and Elena Viviani earned the bronze; this bronze makes it the 3rd medal for Fontana, who won the silver in the 500m and the bronze in the 1500m.
Finally, in long track speed skating, the Orange Crush sweeps the podium in the men's 10,000m event. This is the 4th sweep of all medals for The Netherlands. The Dutch haul of all three medals elevated the Netherlands to the top of the medal board today. Of all the speed skating events, the 10,000m has been the most dramatic for the Dutch. At Vancouver 2010, heavily favored Sven Kramer finished the race first, but was disqualified for a lane violation, in the infamous mistaken call made by his coach; Kramer was heading in the right lane but his coach mistakenly convinced Kramer to change lanes and Kramer had to hop over to get in that wrong lane. Kramer holds the world record at the event and was heavily favored to take gold here. This race here at Sochi was hailed as his redemption from that blunder four years ago in Vancouver.
In the lead up to the record setting 10,000m race, the first Dutch skater to set the bar was veteran Bob de Jong, 37, in his 5th Olympics, skated a 13min 07.19sec, that ended up winning him the bronze. This de Jong's 3rd consecutive Olympics medal in the 10,000m, having won gold in Torino 2006 and bronze in Vancouver 2010; he also won a silver in Nagano 1998! He also becomes the oldest speed skater to win an Olympics medal in 86 years.
Jorrit Bergsma was the next Dutchman to skate and he skated an incredible pace that shattered the old Olympics record and set a new sea level track record.
Jorrit Bergsma broke the Olympics record and set a new track record at sea level with a time of 12min 44.45sec, less then 3 seconds off the 12min 41.69sec high altitude record Sven Kramer set in 2007. And then Bergsma had to wait anxiously for Sven Kramer, the last of the Dutchmen to race.
In an ironic twist of fate, Kramer was paired with Lee Seung-hoon of South Korea, the same man he was paired with at Vancouver 2010; the same man who ended up second to Kramer at Vancouver; then was elevated to gold after Kramer was disqualified; the same man who finished 4 seconds slower than the disqualified Kramer and whose Olympics record of 12min 58.55sec set at Vancouver 2010 was just shattered by Bergsma! Either the sports gods have a wicked and twisted sense of humor or someone was trying to recreate the events of four years ago. The stage was set for Kramer to redeem himself and finally get the gold that was cruelly denied him the last Olympics. The greatest comeback story of the Olympics was about to unfold and the whole world was watching and cheering for Sven Kramer to finally reach his dream.
Alas, it was not to be! Kramer was unable to match Bergsma incredible final lap kick. In the last laps, Kramer faded in his pace, and ended the race with a time of 12min 49.02sec, fast enough for silver, just not good enough for gold! Oh, the disappointment and anguish for Kramer and his supporters! The fairy tale ending everyone expected did not go as planned. But Kramer admitted that Bergsma skated better and truly earned the top spot on the podium. Kramer said that he was beaten by someone better; and however bitter, he accepts that. It was quite obvious that Kramer looked uncomfortable on the podium and didn't stick around for the interviews and the victory parade. He had been complaining of problems with his back and thighs earlier in the week. And he really looked like he was hurting in the last few laps of the race.
But the day belongs to Jorrit Bergsma whose incredible Olympics performance was truly worthy of gold. He now can add his gold to his 5000m bronze from earlier last week. And just an aside, Lee Seung-hoo finished the race in 4th place.
What a great day of competition. And tomorrow, the ladies figure skating competition begins! The short program promises to be exciting and I can't wait to see how the veterans fare against the rising new stars.