Echoes of recent Ukraine intervention by Russia heard as defending champions USA fall in prelimenary Group B sledge hockey match at Sochi Paralympic Games.
Russia shock USA in sledge hockey despite rising tensions
SOCHI, RUSSIA // With tensions running high over Crimea, a fledgling Russian team shocked the United States on Tuesday night in a sledge hockey clash at the Sochi Paralympics.
In a match that brought back echoes of previous “Cold Wars” waged on the ice between the US and the former Soviet Union, Russia got goals from Ilia Volkov and Konstantin Shikhov to defeat the 2010 gold medallists 2-1.
With the Games taking place in the shadow of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula just west of Sochi, each team boasted several players who are military veterans.
The US included two marines, Paul Schaus and Josh Sweeney, who became amputees after injuries received in Afghanistan.
Russia had five military athletes on their team, including Vadim Selyukin, who lost both legs in the war in Chechnya and went on to become one of the biggest sledge hockey advocates in Russia.
Before the match, Russia’s coach, Sergei Samoilov, was tense. He said the Sochi stadiums full of roaring fans are a bit too much to take for some of the younger players on the team, which is a mix of war veterans and boys as young as 17.
Hockey has always been more than just a sport in Russia. The stinging loss of the star-studded national ice hockey team to the US at the Olympics last month led to a stream of conspiracy theories. The coach was sacked.
Samoilov, who has painstakingly created the sledge-hockey team over four years of trial and error, denied that the game yesterday was a sort of rematch. The two sports have nothing to do with one another, he said.
But Anatoly Yegorov, the president of the sledge hockey association, said the pressure from the media and fans was partly the desire for the Russian victory to balance out the loss to the Americans in February. “Of course, it’s symbolic,” he said.
Sledge hockey, also called sled hockey in the US, was invented in a Swedish rehabilitation centre in the 1960s and has become a fan favourite in several western countries.
The sport is at least as physical as regular ice hockey, with players poised on a single metal frame set on two blades.
They then use two specially adapted hockey sticks – one to pass and shoot the puck and the other to move around the ice.
In Russia it remains obscure, with Samoilov taking two years of promoting and travelling to find enough players, let alone sponsors. “There wasn’t a great response,” he said. “Guys were very, very suspicious of this sport.”
At one point, Samoilov reached out to the US for help, he said.
“Americans came and we had a masterclass,” he said. “I never even knew the details of tuning the sleds or the tips of the hockey sticks. But, as they say, don’t feed us fish, instead teach us how to fish.”
Ahead of the match, Samoilov said that Russia could stand to do more for men who became disabled by serving their country.
“The country must be grateful that they went to the end,” he said.
‘Sochi Games exceeding all expectations,’ says IPC chief
The world Paralympics chief yesterday praised Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, for staging a “fantastic” Winter Paralympic Games and said the competition in Sochi was on track to become the most successful.
“The Games are exceeding all expectations in every single area,” Phil Craven, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) president said on Day 4 of the 10-day competition.
In a meeting at Putin’s residence in Sochi, Craven said the Games have been well-organised and “attended by amazing crowds, Russian crowds”.
The Briton told Putin: “With the organising committee and with your incredible support, we are having a fantastic Games here.”
More than 300,000 tickets have been sold for the event, eclipsing the previous Winter Paralympic record of 230,000 sold in Vancouver four years ago, the IPC said.
“To break the 300,000 barrier is sensational and I know the Organising Committee is working hard to try to create extra capacity to cater for the huge demand for tickets,” Craven said.
“No matter where the Games go, they have an ability to transform sports fans into sports fans for all, supporting all sides and all athletes.”
Putin echoed those sentiments.
“I was at some competitions and I must say that after a couple of minutes watching these competitions, one totally forgets that these are people with certain limited physical abilities. This, of course, produces a very strong emotional impression,” he said. “Of course we cannot but be pleased with our team’s progress at the competitions: 34 medals including 11 golds. We are very proud of our athletes.”
Organisers said they had raised US$95 million (Dh348.9m) from their marketing programme, a record for a Paralympic Winter Games.
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