Sochi 2014: From Russia with love for buoyant GB

GB's flag bearer, Lizzy Yarnold, enters the Olympic Stadium for the closing ceremony. Picture: Getty
GB's flag bearer, Lizzy Yarnold, enters the Olympic Stadium for the closing ceremony. Picture: Getty
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Ninety years on from Great Britain’s first and most successful Winter Olympic Games, an average heptathlete and a curling captain scarred by previous Winter Olympic failures conspired to write a bright new script for the nation’s sporting future.

The widespread incredulity that has greeted our previous moments of success on snow and ice since the fog-eyed days of Eddie The Eagle melted away amid the unlikely heat of this palm-fringed Black Sea resort. It was hardly an avalanche, but the four British medals hewn from snowboard slopes, ice chutes and curling rinks represented an equal best haul to the inaugural Winter Games in Chamonix in 1924. Six years ago, Lizzy Yarnold was an average heptathlete and David Murdoch was a world-class curler, about to win his second world title but already scarred by a near-miss at the Turin Games in 2006.

Their destinies would collide to reap a rich bounty in Sochi: Yarnold capping a dominant World Cup season by sliding faster than her skeleton rivals by almost a second over four runs; Murdoch fashioning a long-overdue silver from almost a decade of Olympic agony.

But behind their richly deserved medals, and the bronzes won by snowboarder Jenny Jones and Eve Muirhead’s women’s curling rink, were the equally encouraging stories of so many near-misses.

From the bass-thumping slopes of the Extreme Park to the final-day culmination of the bobsleigh competition, British athletes pressed and pushed into top ten placings. Long gone are the days when we would gaze longingly at the Games’ second Thursday in the vain hope of scraping a medal shot.

Katie Summerhayes and James Woods both came close on the exhilarating Olympic debut of ski slopestyle, Elise Christie fell foul of outrageous fortune not twice but three times on the ever-unpredictable short-track rink, and John Jackson completed a Herculean comeback from injury to place fifth – missing out on a medal by a mere 0.11 seconds in the show-closing four-man.

It could have been more. Perhaps, if we had followed the example of the hosts, whose £31 million Games budget apparently included a small fortune to pay for the change of allegiance of the South Korean figure skater Ahn Hyun-soo, it would have been.

A haircut and a name-change later, Ahn had become Victor An, pride of the Motherland, his three gold medals on the same rink where home figure skater Adelina Sotnikova somehow convinced the judges to score her a figure skating gold medal over the perfect and precise Kim Yu Na helping the hosts to the top of the Games-ending medals table.

Any such prospective shopping list would surely have to include a Norwegian biathlete, ideally Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, who one month after his 40th birthday pulled off an extraordinary individual win in the opening men’s sprint to match compatriot Bjoern Daehlie’s all-time record of 12 Winter Olympic medals, a total he later surpassed with a second gold in the mixed relay.

Also at the dramatic Laura Endurance Centre venue high in the mountains above Laura Khutor, Belarusian biathlete Darya Domracheva starred with three gold medals and Bjoerndalen’s compatriot Marit Bjoergen matched that tally in the cross-country skiing.

The list would have to include a handful of Dutch speed skaters, who dominated the action at the Adler Arena to such an extent that questions will surely have to be asked about the strength of the competition: of 36 available long-track medals, the Dutch took 23, including four clean sweeps.

And it would have to include one or two Russian bobsledders, preferably in the shape of the Siberian express Alexander Zubkov, who rose above the simmering rows about slide access and so-called secret push-tracks to strike gold in both the two-man and four-man disciplines, the latter glory played out in front of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

From the snowboard slopes to the sliding centre and curling centre, Great Britain made the most of it too.

In alpine skiing, Chemmy Alcott capped her comeback from a broken leg with a creditable 19th place finish in the women’s downhill, and Dave Ryding finished 17th in the men’s slalom – possibly only missing out on a top-10 finish when he missed a gate and had to retreat.

Andrew Musgrave became the first Briton to reach the quarter-finals of the men’s cross-country sprint – and the fact he was so disappointed at his performance speaks volumes for his potential. Posy Musgrave and Andrew Young also hit their respective targets.

Ice dance pair Penny Coomes and Nick Buckland, tipped as the next big things in British skating, produced a credible tenth-place finish.

Jenny Jones kicked off Great Britain’s medal count with a surprise slopestyle bronze and the team in general excelled, with Jamie Nicholls and Billy Morgan both making the men’s final and Zoe Gillings coming within an inch of doing the same in the snowboard-cross event. A genuine success story, and no reason why GB should not continue to contend in future Games.

The Games were officially brought to a conclusion yesterday with a closing ceremony that celebrated Russia’s culture and heritage – as well as giving an indication of the country’s sense of humour.

Spectators at the Fisht Stadium , took in a show which focused on the art, music, dance and literature of the host nation. And there was a notable light-hearted moment in the proceedings as well when the infamous Olympic rings malfunction from the opening ceremony was parodied by a group of dancers.

A major talking point in the build-up had been Russia’s hard-line laws on ‘’non-traditional’’ sexuality, widely seen as an attack on gay rights.

Addressing the athletes, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach said: “By living together under one roof in the Olympic Village you send a powerful message from Sochi to the world: the message of a society of peace, tolerance and respect.”

Soon after, those who had competed emerged for the parade, with Yarnold bearing the flag at the head of the GB party. After the speeches, in which Bach declared the Games officially closed, and the official handover to 2018 hosts PyeongChang, giant versions of the official mascots congregated in the middle of the stadium around a flame and blew it out, simultaneous to the one in the cauldron outside also being extinguished. The extravaganza had reached its end, but memories of Putin’s Olympic party will live on for some time.