Sports

Spotlight on ice hockey

Attention at the Winter Olympics yesterday turned to the eagerly awaited men's ice hockey competition, as host team Russia, heavyweights Canada and the United States were paraded before the media.

For many fans, the Winter Games does not properly begin until the puck drops on the men's ice hockey rink, which happens today at the gleaming new Bolshoy Ice Dome and Shayba Arena on Russia's Black Sea Coast.

On day four of the Olympics, most of the action was up in the Caucasus Mountains, where mild temperatures were causing increasing concern about poor snow conditions.

The final training session for today's women's downhill was cancelled due to the conditions and, ahead of the Nordic Combined competition on the same day, American Bill Demong said of the snow: "It's not even slushy, it's just mushy.

Temperatures are expected to rise to at least 15 deg C later in the week.

American skier Bode Miller has blamed the weather for wrecking his hopes of glory in Sunday's downhill, and he fears the mild conditions may scupper his bid to successfully defend his super combined title, saying softer snow favours slalom technicians.

Despite the gripes, competition went ahead yesterday and American snowboarder Shaun White, one of the best known faces in winter sport, opened his bid to retain his halfpipe title with a strong performance in the heats.

ICE HOCKEY MANIA

Canada are top of the medal standings with four golds, while Russia linger in sixth position with one gold, two silver and three bronze medals.

The hosts are desperate to improve on their woeful performance at the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver four years ago, when just three gold medals left them 11th in the table.

When the figure skating team won gold on Sunday, there was a surge of excitement across the country, but that would be nothing compared to the euphoria a men's ice hockey gold would bring.

If there is one country where the sport matters as much as in Canada, it is Russia, and more than 100 journalists and 40 television cameras were there for the men's media conference.

"I participated in four Olympic Games and I don't remember such an interest in ice hockey players," former goaltending great Vladislav Tretyak, now president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, said.

The heavyweight American and Canadian teams had their first practice on Monday, but attention was already turning to Saturday's mouth-watering clash between the United States and Russia.

That game will bring back memories of the "miracle on ice" at Lake Placid in 1980 when a US team made up of amateur and college players stunned the dominant Soviets, who had won five of the previous six gold medals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has staked his personal and political prestige on staging a successful Games, would dearly love a home victory in that game, en route to gold.

- Reuters.