By Mike Collett-White
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – In a finish that a Hollywood scriptwriter would struggle to match, the women’s downhill at Russia’s Winter Olympics produced a tie for gold for the first time on Wednesday, in a thrilling start to the fifth full day of competition.
Despite clear skies and mild temperatures, complaints about slushy snow conditions in the Caucasus mountains melted away, while on the Black Sea coast excitement grew with the first puck set to be dropped in the men’s ice hockey competition.
History was made when Switzerland’s Dominique Gisin and Tina Maze of Slovenia shared the women’s Olympic Alpine skiing downhill gold medal after clocking exactly the same time down the sun-bathed Rosa Khutor descent.
Gisin, lost in amazement at the bottom of the piste, called it “crazy”.
SPECIAL COVERAGE: Olympics 2014
“I attacked hard from top to bottom,” added the 28-year-old, who has had her share of injuries over the years.
Alpine skiers have shared medals before at the Olympics, but never gold.
It was the second time in two days that women athletes made history at the Olympics.
On Tuesday night, women ski jumpers finally had the chance to prove their mettle in one of the ultimate sporting tests of power, technique and daring, 90 years after the first men competed at a Winter Games.
For years they were told the sport was too risky, that there were too few top-class women competitors, or even that the impact of landing could damage their fertility.
But ending a long battle for inclusion, all the frustration was consigned to the past at the hill at RusSki Gorki in the mountains above Sochi.
The events, added to the shock failure of U.S. snowboard king Shaun White to win a medal in the halfpipe on Tuesday, have grabbed the attention of the watching world and pushed a troubled buildup to the Sochi Games further into the background.
RUSSIANS SKATE FOR GOLD
Going into Russia’s first Winter Games, the biggest worry was the threat of attack by Islamist militants based in the north Caucasus hundreds of kilometers to the east.
On Tuesday, a militant group urged followers to pray for an earthquake in Sochi during the Olympics to avenge Muslims who died there fighting “Russian infidels”, but as yet there has been no violence directly linked to the Games.
President Vladimir Putin, whose reputation rides on a safe and successful Games, was also criticized after Russia introduced a law last year banning the promotion of gay propaganda among minors.
There have been no major protests in Sochi over legislation which critics say encourages violence against gays.
The cost of staging the Games, estimated at $51 billion, although that figure is disputed, and allegations of widespread corruption have also slipped from the headlines for now.
The more the action and excitement take hold, the happier Putin, and Russia, will be.
Six medal events will be decided on Wednesday.
Russia has high hopes of gold in pairs figure skating, with world and European champions Maxim Trankov and Tatiana Volosozhar tipped for the title.
Russia linger in seventh place in the medals table, with Norway ahead of Canada at the top.
American speedskater Shani Davis will be bidding for his third straight gold in the 1,000 meters and aiming to put a dent in the Dutch domination on the ice.
Australian Torah Bright defends her snowboarding halfpipe title against rivals who include America’s Kelly Clark — the 2002 winner is appearing at her fourth Games.
In the luge doubles, Austrian brothers Andreas and Wolfgang Linger seek their third successive Winter Games gold.
The International Olympic Committee and International Luge Federation will remember Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili, whose death from injuries in a training crash four years ago to the day at the Vancouver Games stunned the sporting world.
“We are laying flowers at the luge centre in Whistler,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said in Sochi. “It is an ongoing thing. We will also continue to work with the family (of the athlete) for a lasting tribute.
The puck drops for the start of action in the eagerly anticipated men’s ice hockey tournament, in which Czech Republic play Sweden and Latvia meet Switzerland in the opening group games.
(Additional reporting by the Reuters Winter Olympics team; Editing by Peter Rutherford)