By Mike Collett-White
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – The power of men’s ice hockey and grace of women’s figure skating were the big draws at the Winter Olympics on Wednesday, but athletes from Ukraine, which neighbors host nation Russia, found it hard to focus following bloody protests at home.
Russian fans were roaring on the home ice hockey team against formidable Finland at the futuristic Bolshoy Ice Dome, while the sport’s superpowers Canada and the United States both play later in the evening.
At the nearby Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi, there will be similarly partisan support for 15-year-old figure skater Julia Lipnitskaya, one of the favorites in the singles competition having mesmerized the Games with her performance in the team event.
That contest concludes on Thursday, while on Wednesday there were eight gold medals up for grabs in the Caucasus mountains and in the Olympic Park on the Black Sea coast at the start of the day’s sporting action.
SPECIAL SECTION: Sochi Games
They included the men’s giant slalom, which Ted Ligety won to claim the first U.S. Alpine skiing gold at the Sochi Games. Thick fog, rain and snow that made skiing so difficult over the last two days had lifted, and conditions were clear.
Far from the sporting arena, Ukraine’s Olympic team were struggling to come to terms with deadly clashes at home in which at least 26 people have been killed.
Ukraine’s athletes asked for permission to wear black arm bands to honor those killed, but the International Olympic Committee refused.
“Yes it’s a distraction, everyone’s talking about it – even just now at the start, at the finish, people are saying ‘what’s happened in your country, what’s happened?’” said Dmytro Mytsak, a Ukrainian giant slalom skier from the capital Kiev.
“We’re getting support from the Russian spectators and I’m grateful for that,” the 18-year-old added.
Former pole vault champion and Ukraine’s Olympic chief Sergey Bubka, in Sochi for the Games, called for calm.
“I’m shocked by what is happening in my native country,” said Bubka, also an adviser to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich against whom much of the anti-government protesters’ ire is directed.
“I am once again urging all parties to stop the violence. There is no ‘their’ Ukraine, or ‘your’ Ukraine. It is OUR Ukraine,” he wrote in a statement.
IOC President Thomas Bach added: “I would like to offer my condolences to those who have lost loved ones in these tragic events. Our thoughts and sympathy are with the Ukrainian team at what must be a very difficult time.
“The way they have continued to represent their nation with great dignity is a credit to them and their country. Their presence here is a symbol that sport can build bridges and help to bring people from different backgrounds together in peace.”
“STOP THE BLOODSHED”
Games host Russia, and its president, Vladimir Putin, are key players in Ukraine’s crisis.
Putin spoke with Yanukovich by telephone overnight.
On Wednesday Moscow demanded Ukrainian opposition leaders “stop the bloodshed” in Kiev and said Russia would use all its influence to bring peace to its “friendly brother state”.
Demonstrations erupted in November after Yanukovich bowed to pressure from Russia and pulled out of a planned trade pact with the European Union, deciding instead to accept a Kremlin bailout for the heavily indebted economy.
Putin will hope events in Ukraine do not overshadow Russia’s first Winter Games, where state-of-the-art venues and thrilling action have pushed criticism during the buildup to the Olympics firmly into the background.
The president attributed the criticism – aimed at a law banning the promotion of homosexuality among minors and at the high costs of staging the event – to a Cold War mentality in the West.
Threatened demonstrations have been few and far between during the February 7-23 Games, although protest group Pussy Riot did crash the Olympic party briefly on Tuesday when they were detained for several hours at a Sochi police station.
Members of the group, who once again grabbed international media attention, were in Sochi to record a musical film called “Putin will teach you to love the motherland”.
MOUNTAIN GOLD RUSH
In a rush of gold in the Caucasus mountains high above Sochi, Ligety claimed the United States’ first Alpine skiing title of the Games by beating two Frenchmen to the top of the podium in the giant slalom.
Russia’s Vic Wild won the Olympic men’s snowboard parallel giant slalom gold medal just minutes after his wife, Alena Zavarzina, had won bronze behind Swiss champion Patrizia Kummer in the women’s event.
Norway, anchored by the indomitable Marit Bjoergen, won the women’s team sprint classic gold medal, and in the men’s event, Finland prevailed.
Norway went top of the overall medals table with eight golds, ahead of Germany.
France, with double Olympic champion Martin Fourcade doubtful because he is suffering from sinusitis, Norway and Russia are among the favorites for the mixed relay in biathlon.
The last event to be decided on Wednesday will be the woman’s bobsleigh, while back down in Sochi, Canada and Sweden advanced to the women’s curling final.
At the Adler Arena in the Olympic Park, Czech Marina Sablikova will try to hold back the orange Dutch tide by retaining her 5,000 meters speedskating title.
Ireen Wust has already beaten her over 3,000 meters in Sochi and will be seeking yet another Dutch gold in a sport they have dominated at these Games.
(Reporting by Reuters Olympics teams in Sochi and Rosa Khutor; Editing by Peter Rutherford)