Japan celebrates at last

 

The Games burst into noisy life yesterday as hosts Japan won their first gold medal, Alpine skiing started at last and Russia again showed their mastery of pairs figure skating.

Speed skater Hiroyasu Shimizu, the world record holder, became the toast of Japan for his eagerly anticipated win in the 500 metres.

Shimizu, who carried the flag for Japan in the opening ceremony, clocked a two-run aggregate of one minute 11.35 seconds to give Japan their first Olympic title in speed skating.

It was also a big day for Russia as cross country skier Larissa Lazutina won the women's five kilometres sprint and became the first athlete to win two medals at the Games.

Artur Dmitriev produced a classic display with Oksana Kazakova yesterday to become the first man to win two Olympic pairs figureskating titles with different partners.

Dmitriev (30), and Kazakova (22), were awarded a perfect 6.0 and five 5.9s for artistic impression as they powerfully saw off the challenge from fellow Russians Elana Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, the European champions.

The veteran Dmitriev, who won the 1992 Olympic title and the 1994 silver medal with Natalia Mishkutienok, equalled Russia's Irina Rodnina, who won pairs titles with two men in the 1970s.

"It is a completely different medal. The first one was more difficult pressure wise, but this one was more difficult for everything else," said Dmitriev.

Dmitriev and Kazakova were first after the short programme, but were expected to face a stiff test from Berezhnaya (20), and Sikharulidze (21).

However, Dmitriev, who has lost nine pounds in the run-up to the Nagano Games, pulled off another of the grand performances which he seems to reserve for the Winter Olympics.

Dancing to Handel's Pasqualia, they executed their jumps perfectly and Dmitriev was rock-solid controlling his partner in their spirals, in which Kazakova's head was just inches from the ice.

Meanwhile, British captain Kirsty Hay ensured her team stayed on course for a medal in the women's curling. Hay's team produced a stirring fight-back against Norway in Karuizuwa.

Victory left Britain's women level in second place with Canada and Denmark, while the men's team are hanging on in fourth spot, the last qualifying place, level with the United States, Japan and Norway.

The multi-millionaires of North American ice hockey arrived in town, led by Canada's Wayne Gretzky, who said he was looking forward to having fun in his first Olympics.

On the ski slopes nearly 200 soldiers shovelled snow in bitter cold to ready the Hakuba course for the slalom legs of the men's combined. Austria's Mario Reiter grabbed first honours in the combined, dominating both runs of the slalom on a course criticised by most skiiers as too icy and difficult.