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Kotsenburg gets Sochi off to golden start

Gold medalist Sage Kotsenburg of the U.S., silver medalist Staale Sandbech (L) of Norway and bronze medalist Mark McMorris (R) of Canada rea
Gold medalist Sage Kotsenburg of the U.S., silver medalist Staale Sandbech (L) of Norway and bronze medalist Mark McMorris (R) of Canada rea

By Julian Linden

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - The glorious unpredictability of Olympic sport was unveiled in all its majesty on Saturday on an extraordinary, record-matching first day of competition at the Sochi Winter Games.

The modernization of the Olympic program helped produce a young champion for the ages and a rare sibling double while two of the sports traditional sports added to their stockpile of golds with emotionally-charged victories.

Like host-nation Russia, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is banking on the Sochi Games showing the world that it is moving with the times.

On Saturday, in the Caucasus Mountains high above Sochi, all those worlds came together in perfect unison when Sage Kotsenburg won the inaugural men's slopestyle competition.

Later that night, two Canadian sisters - Justine and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe - finished first and second in the moguls, becoming just the third pair of sisters to win gold and silver in the same event at a Winter Olympics.

"It just totally rocks," shrieked Justine. "It is just really amazing."

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen of Norway won the biathlon sprint to capture his 12th Olympic medal - matching the all-time record of medals at a Winter Games.

The extreme sports have become the hottest tickets in Winter Olympic sports as the young athletes perform outrageously complicated stunts with a devil-may-care approach that befits their generation.

With his scraggy blonde hair, Kotsenburg was not among the favorites to win gold but he snatched it anyway, with the same cavalier attitude that has drawn the attention of Generation Y - unveiling a trick he invented himself but had never actually tried before.

"I just kind of do random stuff," he said. "I had no idea I'd do it ... until three minutes before I jumped."

Kotsenburg's impromptu decision went down well with the judges, who rewarded him with top marks for his four-and-a-half rotation spin, off the equivalent of a three-storey building, while the crowds roared and hooted with approval in the snow-peaked mountains on a glorious sunny day.

The silver medal went to Norway's Staale Sandbech and the bronze to Canada's Mark McMorris, who competed with a broken rib but, in the colorful vernacular of snowboarding, he said it was day when everyone in the sport was fully sick.

"An all around amazing vibe," he declared.

There were Dufour-Lapointe sisters entered in the moguls but only Justine and Chloe made it through to the final round while Maxine came 12th.

The favorite for the gold was American Hannah Kearney but when she botched the landing on her first jump, Justine, 19, and her older sister Chloe, 22, found themselves on top of the podium.

The only other sisters to achieve the feat at a Winter Olympics were Christine and Marielle Goitschel of France, who did it two events in 1964, and Doris and Angelika Neuner of Austria, who did it in 1992.

Earlier in the day, there was a somber mood when Norway's Marit Bjoergen, dubbed the "Iron Lady" of cross country skiing, won the women's 15 kilometer skiathlon.

Like all cross-country events, the 15km is an exhausting one in which competitors reach the finish line before collapsing in the snow, gasping for air in agonizing pain.

ACCOMPLISHED CAREER

Bjoergen was no different but her pain this time was as much emotional as physical after she earned the fourth Olympic gold medal of her accomplished career.

On the previous day, the Norwegian team was hit by some devastating news. The brother of their team mate Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen had died "suddenly and unexpectedly".

No more details were given but Bjoergen said the whole team was shattered.

"After things like this, it is hard to focus on the race," she said.

Norway dominates cross-country skiing and provided three of the first four in Saturday's race.

When they finished, they wrapped their arms around each other and began to sob. Cross country is a lung-bursting sport but a tight-knit one as well and Sweden's Charlotte Kalla, who took the silver medal behind Bjoergen, joined the three Norwegians.

After a week of build-up that has been marred by bickering between politicians and complaints by journalists about their hotel rooms, it was a solemn way for some athletes to reclaim the spotlight.

"It gives you perspective on the value of an Olympic medal," said Kalla.

After almost two years without an individual win, Bjoerndalen matched compatriot Bjorn Daehlie's Winter Games mark of 12 Olympic medals.

At age 40, Bjoerndalen picked up his seventh gold medal of his career, and his third in the sprint, an event he had not won in 12 years.

"I did things the way I know best," he said.

Down at the Black Sea resort in Sochi, another familiar face climbed back to the top step of the podium when Sven Kramer led a Dutch sweep of the medals in the men's 5,000 meters speedskating event.

With legs as thick and strong as tree trunks, Kramer slashed almost four seconds off the Olympic record he set in Vancouver four years ago with a display of raw power and determinations.

Watched by Dutch King Willem-Alexander, he become just the second man to successfully defend the 5,000m, one of the few events that has stood the test of time and been on the Winter Olympic program since the first Games in 1924.

(Editing by Ed Osmond)

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