Russian dance pair take the lead

By John Powers
Globe Staff / February 20, 2010

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - In most Olympic years, the Russians already would have a couple of gold medals in figure skating by now, but all they’ve got is what they call “nichevo.’’ Nothing. So the burden is on the ice dancers to keep their country from suffering a five-ringed shutout for the first time in 50 years. Not that they’ll admit to it, though.

“We try to focus on our skating, not other things,’’ said Maxim Shabalin, after he and partner Oksana Domnina won last night’s compulsory dance by a fraction more than a point (43.76-42.74) over Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. “We always try to handle our nerves and show our best skating. That is what we will do here.’’

US champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White and Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, who are hoping to make American history by winning two medals here, are well within range in third (41.47) and fourth (40.83), respectively, going into tomorrow’s original dance. “We were very confident coming onto the ice today,’’ said White, who with Davis missed a global medal by just four-100ths of a point last year.

Belbin and Agosto, who finished only 1.22 points behind the Russians at the world championships, weren’t troubled by being nearly three points behind them, since the compulsory counts for only 20 percent. “We’re in a good position right now and there’s plenty of opportunity to make a move,’’ said Belbin, who was born in Kingston, Ontario, and became a US citizen shortly before the 2006 Games.

The Russians, who’ve won seven of the nine gold medals since the event was added in 1976, won’t be happy unless they hear their anthem. “We did our best of the season,’’ said Shabalin, “but it’s only the beginning.’’

With regular skip John Shuster benched for his run of poor shot-making in the tournament and the Americans’ inability to win a game, the US men’s curling squad picked up its first victory, 4-3 over France.

Alternate Chris Plys was promoted to the skip spot and vice skip Jason Smith threw last rock. The US foursome tied it with two in the ninth after France scored a deuce in the seventh for a 3-1 lead. Smith’s final throw gave the Americans three stones in the house, and France couldn’t get closest at the end.

After an 0-4 start, the US team also got a boost from San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis. The Pro Bowler and novice curler served as an honorary captain for two matches and greeted the team before players marched out to their sheet for pregame introductions.

The undefeated Canadian men (5-0) had a much easier day, beating Denmark, 10-3, in six ends. Skip Kevin Martin’s team scored five in the fourth and a three-spot in the sixth.

The US women ended their winless start by beating Russia, 6-4, in their lone match of the day. Skip Debbie McCormick, feeling the pressure of an 0-3 record, nailed her last rock and bumped out a Russian stone to give the Americans a deuce in the final end. Russia scored two points in the seventh and tied it with one in the ninth.

Reigning world champion China made easy work of Denmark, 11-1, in a shortened six-end match. Wang Bingyu scored five points in the final end.

In the other morning game, Britain beat Germany, 7-4, after scoring three in the ninth end.

Ski jumping
The International Ski Federation dismissed Austrian complaints that Swiss ski jumper Simon Ammann’s bindings violated regulations and gave him an unfair edge, clearing him to use the equipment in today’s large hill event in Whistler.

Normal bindings use an elastic strap at the back to keep the boot in place. In the Swiss version, the boot is attached to a curved iron stick that bends forward as the jumper leans his body almost parallel to his skis.

Wearing his equipment, Ammann flew past his main rivals in qualifying this week, and he jumped even farther in the trial round. Nobody in yesterday’s qualifying came within 5 meters of his 140-meter jump from a relatively low start gate.

Japan’s Noriaki Kasai, who uses a binding similar to Ammann’s, had the best effort of the 40 jumpers who qualified yesterday, soaring 142.5 meters from the higher start gate.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.