SOCHI - Russia leapt to the top of the medals table on Saturday with two more golds as the Sochi Olympics entered the final stretch, and the host nation said its first Winter Games had helped "break the ice" of scepticism towards it. Organisers were confident they had achieved what they, and President Vladimir Putin, had set out to do - project Russia as a modern, tolerant country that had thrown off the shackles of its Soviet past.
The icing on the cake was home gold in the men's snowboard parallel slalom and men' biathlon relay, lifting Russia above Norway in the rankings with just three more titles to be decided on Sunday, the final day. "The friendly faces, the warm Sochi sun and the glare of the Olympic gold have broken the ice of scepticism towards the new Russia," said Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, also Putin's Olympics organiser.
"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 have been problems, 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 favoured the hosts over South Korea's Kim Yuna.
Russia's role in the crisis in neighbouring 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 in violent street protests. But in general the thrills and spills on snow and ice have captured the imagination, and Saturday provided another action-packed day in Sochi and amidst the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus Mountains towering in the distance.
One of the most popular medals of the day was a second Sochi gold for Russian snowboarder Vic Wild in the men's parallel slalom. In the women's event, Austrian Julia Dujmovits won. "Beyond believable," said the 27-year-old Wild, who staged a remarkable second-run comeback in the semi-final. "When I came to the Olympics and showed up, I had already won. To win the other day was the greatest feeling of my life. I can't believe it.”
Wild has faced criticism in his native United States, having become a Russian citizen after marrying Alena Zavarzina, the women's giant slalom bronze medallist in Sochi, in 2011. "No matter what you do in your life, people are going to hate you," he told a news conference. "If you're good at something, people are going to hate you." Questions have also been raised about Russia's short track speed skater Viktor Ahn, who has won three gold medals in Sochi for his adopted country, having won three for his native South Korea in 2006 as Ahn Hyun-soo.
"In Korea the fact that I changed citizenship has been widely discussed, and some articles I read make me feel uneasy," Ahn told reporters on Saturday, speaking through a translator. "The most important thing is ... that I perform for this country and I am happy that I managed to win medals for this country." On another day of glorious sunshine, Russia's second gold came in the men's biathlon relay.
There was joy for Norway in the women's event, when "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. The flying Dutch men and women wrapped up the Sochi speed skating competition by cruising to both team pursuit titles.
The two golds, both won in Olympic record times, took the Dutch tally to eight out of a possible 12 at the Adler Arena, which included four medal sweeps in the 10 individual events. It was a show of power like no other at a Winter Olympics. The Soviet Union won six golds in the sport at the 1960 Games, while South Korea matched the half dozen in short track at the 2006 Turin Games.
In the day's final title to be decided, Austria's Mario Matt became the oldest winner of an Olympic Alpine skiing gold at 34 when he edged out team mate Marcel Hirscher in a thrilling slalom. And in the men's ice hockey bronze medal match, Finland trounced the United States 5-0. 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 last act of the February 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 they (Russian organisers) 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."