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Sochi, Russia • It started with stray dogs and #SochiProblems and ended with high praise and happy athletes plus, a few late doping cases.
Along the way, the Sochi Olympics provided airtight security, springlike weather and an unusually dichotomous performance for the U.S. Olympic Team. The Americans won 28 medals to finish second in the overall standings behind Russia, with a new batch of unheralded freeskiers and snowboarders storming the podium while some of the highest-profile stars speedskaters, most notably fell inexplicably flat.
Park City's Ted Ligety and Steven Holcomb were among the 15 Utah residents who won medals and joined many of their fellow Americans in praising organizers who overcame international criticism on several fronts to deliver an Olympics that could hardly have run smoother, from a logistical standpoint.
"They have done a wonderful job," said Larry Probst, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
The Russians spent more than $50 billion to upgrade this fading resort town on the Black Sea and stage the Olympics, and it paid off with 33 medals 13 gold and a spot atop the medal table. The host nation's deputy prime minister, Dmitry Kozak, said he did not know "about any negative evaluation or remark" about the Games.
Well ... there were a few of those, actually. Many journalists and fans who arrived before the opening ceremony discovered unfinished hotel rooms and construction in progress, leading to the social media phenomenon #SochiProblems, which highlighted on Twitter the various foibles they encountered, from filthy drinking water to missing furniture.
Visitors were struck, too, by the preponderance of stray dogs one American athlete, freeskier Gus Kenworthy, adopted a litter of puppies and brought them home to the U.S. and the controversy surrounding Russia's anti-gay laws never really went away. Nor did Pussy Riot, the punk-rock protest group, which was assaulted while trying to perform under an Olympic banner.
But once the sports began, the complaints mostly took a backseat.
Park City's Sage Kotsenburg gave the U.S. team a strong start by unexpectedly winning gold in the new snowboard slopestyle event in the first full event of the Games, leading a charge of fresh new faces into the spotlight. Fellow Utahns Joss Christensen, Kaitlyn Farrington, Torah Bright, Devin Logan, Maddie Bowman and Alex Deibold all won medals in freeskiing and snowboarding events, which were added to the Olympics to appeal to a younger audience. "I hope it shows the whole world how much fun we're having," Christensen said.
Ligety and Holcomb made even more history.
Ligety won the giant slalom to become the first American man with two Olympic golds in Alpine skiing. Holcomb won bronze in the two-man and four-man bobsled races to become the first American in 62 years to medal in both at the same Olympics.
Alpine's Chris Fogt was on his push crew for the four-man race after Eagle Mountain's Noelle Pikus-Pace capped a long, star-crossed career by winning a silver medal in skeleton, then jumping a fence to embrace her husband and two kids in the bleachers.
"This is better than gold, for me," she said.
The U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation won a medal in every discipline, and the Park City-based U.S. Ski Team enjoyed a solid performance in the Alpine events, too.
Aside from Ligety, five-time Olympian Bode Miller earned bronze in the super-G for his sixth career medal behind surprise silver medalist Andrew Weibrecht, Julia Mancuso took bronze in the super-combined, and 18-year-old superstar-in-the-making Mikaela Shiffrin won gold in the slalom before letting slip that she's dreaming about winning five golds at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea.
"Sorry, I just admitted that to you all," she told reporters.
Of course, there were some big disappointments, too. The speedskaters based at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns comprised a shocking debacle, shut out until their last event, when short-trackers J.R. Celski, Eddy Alvarez, Jordan Malone and Chris Creveling claimed silver in the men's relay.
The long-track team left an Olympics without a single medal for the first time since 1984 amid frenzied speculation about what went wrong it wasn't just the new high-tech suits, everybody eventually agreed while the Netherlands dominated with a record 23 medals, plus one in short track.
"Our job now is to say, 'What went wrong? What went right?' " said Alan Ashley, the chief of sport performance for the USOC who promised to take a "deep dive" into the shortcomings. "It's not just one factor. The fact of the matter is you've got to consider everything."
World champion ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson and her Park City teammates couldn't reach the podium after a long fight to get their sport into the Olympics. Hendrickson was barely six months out of reconstructive knee surgery and the men's and women's hockey teams both fell agonizingly short.
The men lost 1-0 to Canada in the semifinals, then 5-0 to Finland in the bronze-medal game, and the women settled for silver after falling 3-2 to Canada in overtime of a dramatic gold-medal game.
Meanwhile, five-time Olympian Bill Demong of Park City could not replicate his form in Nordic combined to defend his gold medal from Vancouver. Kikkan Randall was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the women's sprint, an event in which she was hoping to win the first American cross-country medal.
Oh, and Shaun White.
The snowboarding icon invited (and received) criticism when he pulled out of the new slopestyle event that Kotsenburg won, citing the risk of injury, only to miss the podium in his halfpipe specialty, where he was the two-time defending champion.
In the end, though, the Americans enjoyed their biggest medal haul at a Winter Olympics outside of North America. The Russians could claim an overwhelming success, with none of the security problems that skeptics feared and some great athletic achievements. Alexander Zubkov swept the two-man and four-man bobsled races, and Viktor Ahn won medals in all four short-track events including three golds. Figure skater Adelina Sotnikova surprised the favorites to win gold, too, partially making up for the failure of the men's hockey team.
Beyond the home team, Norway's Ole Einar Bjoerndalen became the most-decorated Winter Olympian ever with two gold medals in biathlon to reach 13 for his career, while six athletes were thrown out of the Games for doping. They included cross-country skiers Johannes Duerr of Austria and Marina Lisogor of Ukraine, hockey players Niklas Backstrom of Sweden and Vitalijs Pavlovs of Latvia, biathlete Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle of Germany and bobsledder William Frullani of Italy. Five of them tested positive for minor stimulants that are often found in food supplements.
Only one doping case was reported in Vancouver, though the IOC was conducting 2,453 drug tests here, a record.
So, did the Russians do enough to quiet their critics?
"You have to ask those who criticized whether they are ready to change their opinion," IOC President Thomas Bach said. "What I have heard were all positive statements. … Everybody's judgment is positive. So I'm sure that when these people are coming home, that they will spread the message that these were excellent Games and that may lead to the reversal of some criticism."
Utah medalists in Sochi
Athlete Residence Event Medal
Eddy Alvarez West Jordan Short-track relay Silver
Torah Bright Salt Lake City Snowboard halfpipe Silver
Maddie Bowman Salt Lake City Ski halfpipe Gold
J.R. Celski Salt Lake City Short-track relay Silver
Joss Christensen Park City Ski slopestyle Gold
Chris Creveling Midvale Short-track relay Silver
Alex Deibold Park City Snowboardcross Bronze
Kaitlyn Farrington Salt Lake City Snowboard halfpipe Gold
Chris Fogt Alpine Four-man bobsled Bronze
Steven Holcomb Park City Two-man bobsled Bronze
Four-man bobsled Bronze
Sage Kotsenburg Park City Snowboard slopestyle Gold
Ted Ligety` Park City` Giant slalom Gold
Devin Logan Park City Ski slopestyle Silver
Jordan Malone West Jordan Short-track relay Silver
Noelle Pikus-Pace Eagle Mountain Skeleton Silver