SOCHI, Russia -- Five medals gold down, 93 more to go. The first full day of competition at the Sochi Olympics featured an unexpected snowboard gold, a medal shutout for the home team, sweet figure skating redemption and seemingly more interest abroad in these Games, than at home.
First, the surprise. When Shaun White dropped out less than 24 hours before qualification for the snowboard slopestyle event, no one thought his 20-year-old teammate would win the first gold medal of these Games. Sage Kotsenburg, who defines being chill, seemed as surprised as everyone else.
At the start of the day, the Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High doppelganger tweeted: "Whoa how random is this I made finals at the Olympics!!!" A few hours later, he became the first American since 1952 to win the first gold medal of a Winter Olympics. So how did he feel? Stoked, of course, after such a sick run, he said.
With two medals, the Americans stand fourth in the overall medal standings, behind Norway, Canada and the Netherlands. (American Hannah Kearney took the moguls bronze.)
One of Norway's two gold medals went to 40-year-old biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen who became the oldest individual gold medalist in the Winter Games, winning the 10-kilometer sprint - his seventh career gold.
For the first time since 1998, the host nation did not win a medal after the first day at a Winter Games. Biathlon is one of the most popular winter sports in Russia, second behind hockey. But a raucous scene at Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center turned into disappointment.
Russia lost a medal when Anton Shipulin finished fourth by 0.7 seconds after missing a target at the final shooting station. Shipulin, the antithesis of chill, was a bit upset, to say the least. "I hate myself for it," he said. "Twenty minutes ago my fate was decided - my happiness, my dream, and I spoiled it myself."
Throughout the day Russian fans rose to the occasion for their own, especially for 15-year-old figure skater Julia Lipnitskaia who dazzled at the Iceberg Skating Palace. When she finished her short program in the inaugural team event, the crowd jumped to its feet and shouted her name. "I've never seen anything out there like the atmosphere out there today. There wasn't silence for a single second," she said.
Back in the U.S., figure skating fans likely felt the same way, holding their breath as Ashley Wagner took the ice. After struggling at nationals last month, some questioned whether she belonged on team. "This performance was more for myself and mentally getting beyond this past couple of weeks," she said. "And I wanted to do everything I could to help out the team, and I really feel that I delivered on that part.''
The U.S. team has a solid hold on third place (34 points) heading into the remaining three free programs Sunday, well behind Russia (47 points) and Canada (41) but three points ahead of fourth-place Italy.
Was this redemption? Wagner was asked. "To the people who doubted I belonged on this team, yes, but really it was more about proving to myself that I could get beyond that competition and that I wasn't a nervous wreck and that I was that strong, hard-headed competitor that I know that I am and that my mother has been dealing with for 22 years, so that was good for me," she said.
After swaths of empty seats at the opening ceremony, event organizers showed no concern about attendance. As Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi Olympic organizing committee, said, "Empty seats? If there will be any empty seats then we will discuss it, so far, so good."
Spokeswoman Aleksandra Kosterina said 44,431 visited the park on Friday, some to buy tickets and just spend time in the area. She said organizers would look into using volunteers to fill the seats if necessary.
At the 2012 London Games, organizers used volunteers as seat fillers but only after Brits grabbed almost all of the 8.8 million available tickets. When broadcasts showed open seats, an outcry led organizers to release tickets, some belonging to federations and sponsors that would have gone unused.
Of course, Sochi with a population of 350,000, is no London or Vancouver. Given the cost of travel the city and the security concerns, attendance could continue to be an issue. Organizers have said that 80% of tickets have been sold.
On this blue-sky, no-coat-needed Saturday, several venues seemed sparse at the start but began to fill minutes into the start. As Chernyshenko explained, Russians are a late-arriving crowd. "We are trying to inspire our local fans to come longer in advance and to fill the stadia prior, or at the beginning," he said.
One troubling spot was speedskating, but that had more to do with the Netherlands than Russia. The orange-clad speedskating extremists are fixtures at every winter Olympics, yet Saturday in the Adler Arena the Netherlands crowd was noticeably light, even as their men swept the 5,000 meters. At least on this day the numbers seem down when compared with the turnout in 2010, when Dutch speed skating backers packed the venues in Vancouver.
To be fair, Sochi is not that easy to reach, and threats of terrorism could be impacting fan travel.
In the U.S., fans seem engaged, based on the numbers for the opening ceremony. The event wasn't broadcast live - there's a nine-hour time difference between Sochi and New York, but it was the second-most watched Winter Games opening ceremony in history, that wasn't shown live. The 31.7 million viewers who waited for the show was an impressive number in this age of digital immediacy.
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