A pair of gold medals brightened up the Vancouver Olympics on Sunday, the first bringing a sense of relief to the tragedy-stricken sport of luge and the second helping host nation Canada to finally win at home.
Felix Loch, a 20-year-old German, sped safely down the shortened track at the Whistler Sliding Centre and won in a four-heat time of 3 minutes, 13.085 seconds – only two days after a Georgian competitor was killed on the same stretch of ice.
A few hours later, Alexandre Bilodeau became the first Canadian to ever win an Olympic gold medal on home soil in the men’s moguls.
“I don’t think I really realise it,” Bilodeau said. “It’s too good to be true.” Defending champion Dale Begg-Smith was second, becoming only the third Australian after short-track speedskater Steven Bradbury and aerial skier Alisa Camplin to win two Winter Olympics medals.
In Canada’s two previous Olympics – the 1976 Montreal Summer Games and the 1988 Calgary Winter Games – the country failed to climb to the top of the podium.
The euphoria that spread over Canada was far different than the sombre mood at the luge venue, with many still mourning the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili.
The 21-year-old Georgian luger died Friday after crashing and hitting a steel girder while on a training run. Luge officials then changed the start position to try to prevent another accident. “It was the right decision,” Loch said.
“I was worried that I wouldn’t do so well, but it’s OK. It’s great.” In figure skating, Chinese husband and wife Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo set a world record in winning the opening pairs short program.
The two-time bronze medallists were the first skaters of the night – usually a disadvantage – and managed 76.66 points, .70 ahead of two-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany, who skated last.
“It was a gift for Valentine’s Day, and today was just the short program,” Zhao said. “Hopefully tomorrow will be as good as today.”
Earlier Sunday, the wet weather on Whistler mountain came in handy for French biathlete Vincent Jay, even if the same conditions caused more problems for the yet-to-start alpine skiing events.
A mixture of snow and rain kept the Alpine racers off the courses yet again at the Vancouver Games. And it also made for difficult conditions for much of the 10km biathlon sprint, affecting most of the pre-race favourites.
Jay, however, shot flawlessly and took advantage of an early start number to win in 24:07.8.
Another Frenchman, Jason Lamy Chappuis, also won a gold medal, overtaking Johnny Spillane of the United States on the final straight in the Nordic combined individual race.
In women’s speedskating, Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic won the women’s 3000m, the first of a possible two long-distance golds.