Three competitions kicked off action the day before the official opening ceremonies, while other athletes took to the slopes and tracks and rinks to acclimate to the Olympic venues. Figure skating saw Russia take the lead after the first two events of the new team competition, while snowboarding and freestyle skiing started the qualification for the medal rounds in slopestyle and women’s moguls respectively. We saw a spill in luge training that highlighted the safety features of the Sanki Sliding Center, while the other venues fought through issues of going too big.
Here are a few thoughts from the early competition in Sochi:
Figure Skating — Team Program
Even before putting in a solid second-place performance behind Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu in the men’s short program of the team competition, Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko also found out that he will get to defend his silver medal from Vancouver in the men’s singles competition. Russia had earned only one spot for its men, and with the state of the Russian program at a weak point Plushenko emerged as the most capable entrant. After his showing in the team competition, he looks like one of the favorites to land on the men’s podium for the fourth straight Winter Olympics.
But once again he could be looking up at the golden spot where he last stood in 2006. While Canada’s Patrick Chan is the reigning world champion in the men’s singles, and Plushenko is his usual dominant self, Hanyu was the star of the men’s short program in the team competition on Thursday and could be the one to beat in the singles. The 19-year-old outperformed Plushenko, Chan and the rest of the field with a QUADRUPLE toe loop accenting a flawless performance. If he can replicate the dynamic performance in the free skate and then in singles competition, Japan could have multiple figure skating medals.
The Russian pair of Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, favorites in the pairs skate later in the Olympiad, boosted Russia into the top spot of the team competition after two of eight events. Right behind them in the standings are Canada and China after their pairs teams finished 2-3 in the short program.
Freestyle Skiing — Women’s Moguls
The first batch of qualifiers are through to the finals, and among those advancing are all the medal favorites. Hannah Kearney put up the best score of the day, but tomorrow’s final will surely test her ability to hold on to the top spot. All three of Canada’s Dufour-Lapointe sisters advanced to the finals, with 22-year-old Chloe and 19-year-old Justine second and third and oldest sister Maxime, 24, making it through in eighth. Fellow American Eliza Outtrim made it through in fourth place, and 15-year-old Frenchwoman Perrine Laffont was the fifth-best qualifier.
Japan’s Aiko Uemura, the 2009 world champion and fifth-place finisher in Vancouver, made it through in seventh place. The Russians have one countrywoman through to the finals, as Regina Rakhimova was the last person above the cut in 10th place. The last of the qualifiers will be decided in a second round of 20 skiers tomorrow before the final round commences.
Snowboarding — Slopestyle
With the loss of Shaun White from the field after he railed about the safety of Sochi’s slopestyle course, the field was winnowed down yesterday with an extra spot up for grabs thanks to the reticence of the Flying Tomato. The organizers seemed to have taken the complaints of White and others to heart, trimming up the excessive height on some jumps and otherwise tailoring the course for optimum competition.
Canadian favorites Max Parrot and Sebastien Toutant made it through automatically to tomorrow’s finals, along with Finnish stars Peetu Piiroinen and Roope Tonteri. Norway also qualified two through automatically to the finals, with Staale Sandbech posting the best score in the first round of qualifiers and Gjermund Braaten making it out of the second batch. Joining them automatically in the finals are Great Britain’s Jamie Nicholls and Swedish snowboarder Sven Thorgren.
Before the medals are decided, though, there will be more qualifiers to decide in a semifinal round. Without White in the field, the Americans have three hopefuls left in the competition — Ryan Stassel, Sage Kostenburg, and Charles Guldemond, none of which should inspire fear in the favorites. Mark McMorris also reached the semifinals despite a crash on his first of two runs; the Canadian fractured a rib at the recent X Games in Aspen, formerly a medal favorite but now a long-shot with his injury.
With fewer competitors on the women’s side, the qualifiers were more a matter of which skiers automatically reached the finals and which would have to take the intermediary step of semifinal competition; nobody was disqualified from the next round after the first two heats. American snowboarders Jamie Anderson and Karly Shorr made it through to the finals automatically, as did 2010 Olympic halfpipe champion Torah Bright of Australia and Canadian favorite Spencer O’Brien.
The best score of qualifying, however, belonged to Austria’s Anna Gasser. The 22-year-old from Villach was two points clear of Anderson in the second batch of qualifiers, and as the first woman ever to unleash a Cab Double Cork 900 she could end up surprising the field and snatching the gold:
Among those that will hope to advance out of semifinal qualifying are Norway’s Silje Norendal, the current X Games champion. The Norwegian fell during both of her attempts in the qualifying round, forcing her to take two more runs to try to make her way to the medal competition immediately following.