KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia >> Finally, some sliding drama at the Sochi Olympics.
On the last day, no less.
Just about every sliding race — luge, bobsled or skeleton — until now at these games was decided by the midway point of the competition, with someone either running out to a huge lead or the medal winners basically needing only to avoid disaster on their way to the podium.
Not in four-man bobsledding, where the leader at the midway point isn’t guaranteed anything.
Russia’s Alexander Zubkov, looking to add four-man gold to his two-man victory earlier in these games, is the leader after two runs over the Latvian sled driven by Oskars Melbardis. On their heels is the German sled piloted by Maximilian Arndt, and right behind him is USA-1 driven by Steven Holcomb, the 2010 Olympic four-man gold medalist.
The margin between those four is 0.17 seconds — and there’s never been an Olympic four-man race closer after two runs.
Plenty is at stake for all four pilots.
Depending on how the 50-kilometer cross country ski race earlier Sunday plays out, a gold from Zubkov in four-man may give Russia the overall medals title, or more golds than any other nation, or both. And the Russian Federation is paying out gigantic bonuses for gold at the Sochi Games, so Zubkov might be able to add quite a bit of cash to his retirement account.
Melbardis will undoubtedly be feeling some pressure as well, since Latvia’s first Winter Olympic gold medal is right there within his reach.
Arndt could save a wildly disappointing bobsled competition for Germany.
Holcomb could go back-to-back as Olympic champion and win his third medal, which would tie the most by an American bobsledder.
So here’s five things to watch and expect from the final day of the final sliding race at the Sochi Olympics:
SEVENTH HEAVEN?: If Holcomb medals, the United States would claim its seventh sliding medal of the Sochi Olympics, ensuring that the American luge, skeleton and bobsled teams would combine to take at least as much hardware home as any other nation. And given that this was on a track that the U.S. teams didn’t know well, that would be a huge boost heading into the next four-year cycle.
CANADA’S WOES: The Canadians did some last-minute maneuvering before the four-man competition, switching teams around with hopes of medals. It might have worked. Justin Kripps — with a new team of pushers, a risky move by the Canadian side — was flying in the second run, then crashed. Everyone in his sled walked away, but there went the medal hopes.
GERMAN SPOILER: Don’t discount Germany-3, which is sitting in fifth place, 0.29 seconds off the lead. Gold is probably out of reach for the sled driven by Thomas Florschuetz, but that crew — with Kevin Kuske leading the way — is good enough to get into the medal mix.
CONDITION CHECK: Sunday’s final two runs take place during daytime hours, which will likely mean the ice will be a bit softer than it was on Saturday night. It’s also the conditions that most teams trained in at the Sanki track leading up to the Sochi Games, and that means some of Zubkov’s copious home-ice advantage might erode a bit.
BRITISH HOPE: John James Jackson has driven Britain-1 into seventh place at the midpoint of the competition. He’ll need a lot of sleds to make a lot of mistakes if he’s going to have a medal chance, but he’s maybe the most unlikely story on the circuit this season, since he spent most of the year racing while recovering from a surgically repaired torn Achilles’ that basically left him unable to walk right, much less run well.