THE modernisation of the Olympic programme produced a champion for the ages yesterday when Sage Kotsenburg won the first gold medal on offer at the Sochi Games.
Like the host nation Russia, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is banking that the Sochi Games will show the world that it is moving with the times.
On Saturday, in the Caucasus Mountains high above Sochi, all those worlds came together when Kotsenburg won the inaugural men’s slopestyle competition.
The snowboarders are the hippest and coollest competitors in winter sports, performing outrageously complicated stunts with a devil-may-care approach that befits their generation.
With his straggly blond hair, Kotsenburg was not among the favourites to win the gold but snatched it anyway, with the same cavalier attitude that has made extreme sports so popular – unveiling a trick he invented himself but had never actually tried before.
“I just kind of do random stuff,” he said. “I had no idea I’d do it… until three minutes before I jumped.”
Kotsenburg’s impromptu decision went down well with the judges, who rewarded him with top marks for his four-and-a-half rotation spin, off the equivalent of a three-storey building, while the crowds roared and hooted with approval on a glorious sunny day.
The silver medal went to Norway’s Staale Sandbech and the bronze to Canada’s Mark McMorris, who competed with a broken rib. Britain’s Jamie Nicholls had an Olympic debut to remember with a sixth-placed finish. The 20-year-old from Bradford found himself in second place at the end of the first run, having earned a score of 85.50. Nicholls could not better his score in his second run but, although he slipped out of the medals, there was no disguising his delight at a memorable showing. Nicholls’ British team-mate Billy Morgan finished in tenth spot.
Nearby, there was a sombre mood on the first full day of competition. Norway’s Marit Bjoergen, dubbed the “Iron Lady” of cross country skiing, won the women’s 15 kilometre skiathlon and the fourth Olympic gold medal of her accomplished career.
On the previous day, the Norwegian team was hit by devastating news. The brother of their team-mate Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen had died “suddenly and unexpectedly”. No more details were given but Bjoergen said the whole team was shattered. “After things like this, it is hard to focus on the race,” she said.
Norway dominates cross-country skiing and provided three of the first four in yesterday’s race. When they finished, they wrapped their arms around each other and began to sob. Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, who took the silver medal behind Bjoergen, joined the three Norwegians.
After a week of build-up marred by bickering politicians and complaints by journalists about their hotel rooms, it was a solemn way for some athletes to reclaim the spotlight.
Down at the Black Sea resort in Sochi, another familiar face climbed back to the top step of the podium when Sven Kramer led a Dutch sweep of the medals in the men’s 5,000 metres speedskating event. Kramer slashed almost four seconds off the Olympic record he set in Vancouver four years ago with a display of raw power and determination.
He became just the second man to successfully defend the 5,000m, one of the few events that has been on the Winter Olympic programme since the first Games in 1924.
And after almost two years without an individual win, Ole Einar Bjoerndalen stamped his authority on the Olympics yesterday, claiming a record-equalling 12th medal by winning the biathlon sprint.
After a 10km effort punctuated with two shooting sessions, the Norwegian matched compatriot Bjorn Daehlie’s mark. Bjoerndalen, who now has seven gold medals, trails eight-times Olympic cross-country skiing champion Daehlie on only “gold difference”.
He missed one of ten targets but shot fast and skied flawlessly to beat Austrian Dominik Landertinger, who took silver, by 1.3sec. Bronze medallist Jaroslav Soukup of the Czech Republic finished 5.7sec off the pace. Britain’s Lee Jackson finished in 67th place.
The final gold medal of the day was won by Canadian teenager Justine Dufour-Lapointe who roared when it mattered most to claim a shock victory and lead her sister Chloe to a family one-two in the moguls freestyle skiing.
The sister act stunned overwhelming favourite Hannah Kearney in the third run of the final under the bright lights at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park to leave the tearful defending champion with a bronze.
They were the third pair of sisters to win gold and silver in the same event at a Winter Olympics. The others were Christine and Marielle Goitschel of France in 1964 and Doris and Angelika Neuner of Austria in 1992.
“It just totally rocks. It is just really amazing,” Justine, 19, said.
Hopes of a family podium sweep had disappeared when the third sibling, Maxime, went out after the second run of the final.