The US swung back to the upper ranks of the medal standings today after a spectacular sweep of the first-ever men’s Olympic freestyle ski slopestyle.
The US is now tied with the Netherlands for the second-highest total medal haul (12) and is in a four-way tie for the second-most gold medals (four each, with Canada, Norway, and the Netherlands). But no one holds a candle to Germany’s gold medal haul; it leads the pack with seven.
The surprise ski slopestyle sweep was a welcome boost to Team USA, which was beset by discouraging losses by medal favorites earlier in the week. In an event that the Monitor’s Sochi correspondent called “thrilling,” Joss Christiansen, Gus Kenworthy, and Nicholas Goepper flipped and triple corked their way into history, turning in the first US Winter Olympic medal sweep since the men’s snowboard halfpipe in 2002.
“The best thing about the event from an American perspective, clearly, is that the medal sweep means everyone will watch Joss Christensen win gold, Gus Kenworthy silver, and Nick Goepper bronze,” wrote the Monitor’s Mark Sappenfield from Sochi.
The best thing about it from a spectator's perspective was that it was a riot no matter who was coming down the hill.
The world has already caught a glimpse of slopestyle with the snowboard competition. But don't be fooled. This was like another universe.
In other events, the Germans boosted their gold medal count by continuing their complete dominance of sliding on sleds on high-speed ice tracks: The Germans took the gold medal in the team luge today, meaning it has now grabbed the gold medal in all four luge events of these Games. German Erik Lesser also added a silver medal to the Germany tally in the men’s biathlon.
China – which had been concerned going into the Games that its star speed skater was out with a broken angle – grabbed a pair of gold medals with victories in the women’s 500-meter short track and 1,000-meter speed skating events.
Russia saw a boost in the standings with a silver in the team luge and bronze in the men’s biathlon. It also kicked off men’s ice hockey with a 5 - 2 victory over Slovenia in the first round of play. The Russian hockey team, which hasn’t won an Olympic gold medal since 1992, is under enormous pressure to win on home ice, explains Sappenfield:
The fact is that we are where we were four years ago – in a hockey-mad country where most men would gladly exchange every medal won by their country in exchange for a shiny gold one in ice hockey. For many Russians, men's hockey is not in the Sochi Olympics, men's hockey is the Sochi Olympics.
Yet unlike four years ago in Vancouver, the host nation does not have a recent gold to calm its anxieties. Canada had won gold in Salt Lake in 2002. Russia last won gold when it wasn't even Russia – the Unified Team, a joint team consisting of six of the fifteen former Soviet republics playing under the Olympic flag, won in Albertville in 1992. The Russian tricolor has never been hoisted to the top spot during a hockey medal ceremony at the Winter Games.
And that points directly to the core of the Russian hockey crisis.
Russia is not the Soviet Union any more, and that has changed hockey here from top to bottom – from the talent coming out of the country's hockey schools to how the players play on the ice. Since Vancouver, it has become clear to the Russians that they need to rebuild their hockey program in the new, wild, Western world they have entered. But whether they have managed it in time for Sochi – or whether playing at home can lift the team above its limitations – are the questions to be answered in the next 11 days.
"The general excitement is making everyone optimistic," says Eduard Sorokin, an independent sports correspondent in Moscow. "It seems that the wave of overwhelming patriotism can create a positive result by itself. Before the [Sochi] Olympic Games, third place would have been considered a good result. But now, swept up in the wave of patriotism, they've begun to talk about gold."