SOCHI, Russia — Norway held their lead at the top of the medals table on Saturday as the Sochi Olympics entered the final weekend, and Russia said its first Winter Games helped “break the ice” of skepticism towards the host nation.
Organizers were confident they had achieved what they and President Vladimir Putin set out to do — project Russia as a modern, tolerant country that had thrown off the shackles of its Soviet past.
“The friendly faces, the warm Sochi sun and the glare of the Olympic gold have broken the ice of skepticism towards the new Russia,” said Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, also Putin’s Olympics organizer.
“The Games have turned our country, its culture and the people into something that is a lot closer and more appealing and understandable for the rest of the world.”
The jury is still out over whether the world agrees, but Putin is likely to be generally pleased that the Games went smoothly, without security scares despite Islamist militant threats and only isolated expressions of dissent to his rule.
There were hiccups, however.
On Saturday, the Ukraine National Olympic Committee said cross-country skier Marina Lisogor had failed a doping test, a day after a German and Italian athlete were thrown out of Sochi for taking banned substances.
Protest group Pussy Riot came to Sochi and drew attention to criticism of Russia’s human rights record, and the women’s figure skating competition was overshadowed by a judging scandal deemed to have favored the hosts over South Korea’s Kim Yuna.
Russia’s role in the crisis in neighboring Ukraine also came under scrutiny when a Ukrainian skier pulled out of the Games in protest against her government, and athletes from the team asked to wear black armbands to honour those killed.
But in general it was the thrills and spills on snow and ice that captured people’s imagination, and Saturday promised another action-packed day down in Sochi and amidst the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus Mountains towering in the distance.
NORWAY GETS THE GOLD
On another day of glorious sunshine, Norway’s “Iron Lady” Marit Bjoergen signed off with her third gold of the Games in the 30 km cross-country skiing, matching her haul in Vancouver.
Compatriot Therese Johaug took silver and Kristin Stoermer Steira, also Norwegian, claimed bronze in a rare clean sweep.
Norwegian Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, the 40-year-old whose 13 Olympic medals make him the most decorated Winter Games athlete, hoped to extend that record with a podium finish in the biathlon relay.
With 91 of the 98 Sochi events completed, Norway sit atop the overall medals table in Sochi with 11 golds, one ahead of Russia and two ahead of Canada and the United States.
The hosts will be delighted with their showing, despite the bitter taste of defeat in the men’s ice hockey competition at the quarter-final stage.
Russia, traditionally a winter sports powerhouse, won just three golds at the last Winter Games in Vancouver and came 11th.
The men’s slalom brings down the curtain on the Alpine skiing program, and Austria’s Marcel Hirscher is the man to beat. He is seeking to complete a triple by adding the Olympics to his World Cup and world championship titles.
In the women’s snowboard parallel slalom, Austria’s Julia Dujmovits won, and in the men’s event it was Russia’s Vic Wild who prevailed.
Dutch domination in speed skating is set to be underlined in the Adler Arena where rivals will struggle to derail the orange locomotive in the men’s and women’s team pursuit.
The U.S. speed skating team departs the Winter Olympics without a medal for the first time since the 1984 Sarajevo Games after their men’s and women’s team pursuit trios were both knocked out in the first round on Friday.
The biggest sporting event still to come is the men’s ice hockey final at the futuristic Bolshoy Ice Dome on Sunday, pitting reigning champions Canada against Sweden, who won the competition in Turin in 2006.
The final act of the Feb. 7-23 Olympics will be the closing ceremony at the Fisht Stadium on the Black Sea coast, one of several gleaming new arenas constructed at huge cost for what are widely believed to be the most expensive Games ever held.
Marco Balich, artistic executive producer of Sunday’s spectacle, said that it would present a different side of Russia to the opening ceremony, which was a muscular expression of the country’s strength, pride and progress.
“As grand as the opening was, with this one they went for another side of Russia — intimate, full of heart, and [Russian organizers] mentioned the word ‘nostalgia’,” Balich told Reuters.
The exact contents were a closely guarded secret, but again the scale and sophistication would impress, he said.
“For sure it will be the biggest Winter Olympics closing ceremony ever.”