Sage Kotsenburg of the U.S. performs a jump during the men’s snowboard slopestyle semifinal competition at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games in Rosa Khutor on Saturday. (Reuters)
SOCHI, Russia — The modernization of the Olympic program produced a champion for the ages on Saturday when Sage Kotsenburg won the first gold medal on offer at the Sochi Olympics.
Like the host-nation Russia, the International Olympic Committee is banking that the Sochi Games will show the world that it is moving with the times.
On Saturday, in the Caucasus Mountains high above Sochi, all those worlds came together in perfect unison when Kotsenburg won the inaugural men’s slopestyle competition.
The snowboarders are the hippest and coolest competitors in Winter sports, performing outrageously complicated stunts with a devil-may-care approach that befits their generation.
With his scraggy blonde hair, Kotsenburg was not among the favorites to win the gold but snatched it anyway, with the same cavalier attitude that has made extreme sports so popular — unveiling a trick he invented himself but had never actually tried before.
“I just kind of do random stuff,” he said. “I had no idea I’d do it … until three minutes before I jumped.”
Kotsenburg’s impromptu decision went down well with the judges, who rewarded him with top marks for his four-and-a-half rotation spin, off the equivalent of a three-storey building, while the crowds roared and hooted with approval in the snow-peaked mountains on a glorious sunny day.
The silver medal went to Norway’s Staale Sandbech and the bronze to Canada’s Mark McMorris, who competed with a broken rib but, in the colorful vernacular of snowboarding, he said it was day when everyone in the sport was fully sick.
“An all around amazing vibe,” he declared.
Nearby, there was a somber mood on the first full day of competition in Sochi. Norway’s Marit Bjoergen, dubbed the “Iron Lady” of cross country skiing, won the women’s 15 kilometer skiathlon.
Like all cross-country events, the 15-km is an exhausting event where competitors reach the finish line then collapse in the snow, gasping for air in agonizing pain.
Bjoergen was no different but her pain this time was as much emotional as physical after she earned the fourth Olympic gold medal of her accomplished career.
On the previous day, the Norwegian team was hit by some devastating news. The brother of their team mate Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen had died “suddenly and unexpectedly.”
No more details were given but Bjoergen said the whole team was shattered.
“After things like this, it is hard to focus on the race,” she said.
Norway dominates cross-country skiing and provided three of the first four in Saturday’s race.
When they finished, they wrapped their arms around each other and began to sob. Cross country is a lung-bursting sport and a tight-knit one as well. Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, who took the silver medal behind Bjoergen, joined the three Norwegians.
After a week of build-up that has been marred by bickering between politicians and complaints by journalists about their hotel rooms, it was a solemn way for some athletes to reclaim the spotlight.
“It gives you perspective on the value of an Olympic medal,” said Kalla.
Down at the Black Sea resort in Sochi, another familiar face climbed back to the top step of the podium when Sven Kramer led a Dutch sweep of the medals in the men’s 5,000 meters speedskating event.
With legs as thick and strong as tree trunks, Kramer slashed almost four seconds off the Olympic record he set in Vancouver four years ago with a display of raw power and determination.
He became just the second man to successfully defend the 5,000m, one of the few events that has stood the test of time and been on the Winter Olympic program since the first Games in 1924.