Alexander Zubkov was given a daunting assignment for his home Olympics. His task: Take to Russian ice and make history, against drivers who have been beating him for years.
Do svidaniya, world!
Zubkov was uncatchable.
He drove Russia to victory in the four-man bobsled race Sunday, adding that gold to his two-man from earlier in the Sochi Games and making him the sixth pilot to sweep those events at an Olympics. Until now, no one had ever achieved that feat on home ice, but this track was built for Zubkov and he proved to be its master.
“We did the impossible,” Zubkov said.
He made it look easy. Against the world’s best like Latvia’s Oskars Melbardis and American record-setter Steven Holcomb.
Melbardis of Latvia drove to the silver medal, matching his nation’s best showing in a Winter Olympic event. And Holcomb, the 2010 four-man champion from Park City, Utah, piloted USA-1 to bronze, ceding his Olympic title but winning his third career medal — tying the most by any U.S. bobsledder — and giving his nation seven sliding medals at the Sochi Games, tops among all countries.
“We came here to win a medal and we did just that,” Holcomb said. “It was a tough race. It wasn’t easy. We kind of knew Zubkov was going to be fast and really hard to beat and the Latvians had a great day today and pulled away, but to come away with a bronze medal, we’re pretty happy with it. It was a tight race and we’re pretty satisfied.”
Zubkov had a slim lead entering Sunday’s final two runs and predicted the title would be decided in the third heat.
Naturally, he was right. That’s where he got all the cushion he needed.
Zubkov, with push athletes Alexey Negodaylo, Dmitry Trunenkov, Alexey Voevoda in his sled, took one look at the standings after the leaders finished their third runs, clenched a fist and punched the air.
He knew it was over.
“It means a great deal to be able to win in Russia,” Zubkov said.
A 39-year-old driver who hadn’t won a single two- or four-man race all season on the World Cup circuit was perfect in Sochi. Zubkov wound up 0.09 second faster than Melbardis, who was 0.30 second up on Holcomb.
“I talked to Zubkov a couple years ago and asked him the first day he slid, and he told me he was 6 years old,” said U.S. bobsledder Justin Olsen, a push athlete in the USA-2 sled piloted by Nick Cunningham that finished 12th. “So he’s been sliding for 33 years. Holcomb’s been sliding since 2001.”
Melbardis came on strong this season, and Latvian sliding looks like it’s positioned to be a power for years to come.
Just not gold-medal good. Yet.
“I think he was just better,” Melbardis said of Zubkov. “That’s it.”
Hey, no one else was better than Melbardis. He had plenty to celebrate.
In turn, so did Holcomb, who got his gold at Vancouver four years ago to end a 62-year drought for the U.S. in that race. He also won two-man bronze in Sochi, ending a 62-year medal drought for the Americans in that discipline. So now, he became the first American pilot to win medals in both Olympic races in … yep, 62 years.
“These guys had a tremendous second push and kept us in there,” Holcomb said, referring to his team, which was racing together for the last time.
Holcomb was joined in the sled by Curt Tomasevicz of Shelby, Neb., Steve Langton of Melrose, Mass., and Chris Fogt of Alpine, Utah. For Tomasevicz and Langton, it was their second Olympic medals. Fogt won his first.
Afterward, Tomasevicz said what many expected him to say: He’s retiring, and thought this was the perfect way to go out.
Sochi had six doping cases; Vancouver had one four years ago. As IOC President Thomas Bach sees it, that’s good news — the drug cheats are getting caught. “The number of the cases for me is not really relevant,” he said. Nicklas Backstrom, who plays for the NHL’s Washington Capitals, tested positive for a substance found in allergy medication that Sweden’s Olympic Committee said he had been taking for seven years. Austrian cross-country skier Johannes Duerr was cited for the blood booster EPO, the most serious of the Sochi cases.
The arithmetic was clear: Russia was king of the medals, be it total or gold. The host country finished with 33 medals overall and 13 gold. Russia started the day tied with Norway for the most gold. It’s the first time Russia has topped both medals tables since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The U.S. won 28 total, including nine gold. Norway had 26 medals, 11 of them gold. Of the Netherlands’ 24 medals, 23 came in speedskating.
“Nobody believed that Russia would even be in the top three in total medals,” Zubkov said. “But we have won.”