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Golden ice dancers banish Canadian blues

By Mary Milliken

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - A young pair of ice dancers lifted the host country out of its Winter Olympic gloom with a golden performance Monday just as Canadians were questioning their team's medal-winning capability.

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who began skating together as children, brought home Canada's first Olympic gold in ice dancing to lift a host nation struggling to cope with a demoralizing ice hockey defeat and diminishing medal hopes.

The win capped a day on which Germany clinched gold in the women's cross country team sprint to go level with the high-flying Americans on seven gold medals apiece in 10 days of Olympic competition.

Norway, a country with a far smaller population which usually punches above its weight at Winter Games, moved to outright third by winning a sixth gold in the men's cross country team sprint.

Canada are now right behind Norway with five golds and Virtue and Moir are set to become the sweethearts of the Games.

Wearing classic white and skating to Mahler's Symphony No. 5, Virtue and Moir concluded their mesmerizing routine with him on his knees and her face in his hands -- bringing the home crowd to its feet to the chant of "Canada, Canada, Canada."

"This is for Canada and Canada is with us," said Virtue, aged 20 to Moir's 22.

Their American training partners Meryl Davis and Charlie White took silver and relegated the Russian favorites Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin to bronze. It was the first time in 34 years that Europeans did not win the ice dance gold medal.

That was not the only novelty, though. British siblings Sinead and John Kerr mixed things up a little as the sister lifted the brother in a rare case of ice dance role reversal.

SILENCE CRITICS

Virtue and Moir's triumph may silence, at least for now, a rising crescendo of criticism about the host nation's "Own the Podium" program to win a glut of medals on home soil.

With wry Canadian humour, locals began calling the multimillion-dollar investment in athletes "blown the podium" or "flown the podium" after coming up dry in Alpine skiing and watching neighbors the U.S. strike a rich seam of medals.

Canada's doubts turned to depression after the ice hockey- crazed country lost to the American men Sunday, in a game that was the most watched sports program in Canadian history with 10.6 million viewers.

As Canadians began to lose their cool in the middle of the Games, the country's Olympic Committee (COC) made a plea to wait and see what the last week of the Games held for the nation of 34 million people.

"It's painful to do the autopsy while the patient is alive and kicking," COC chief executive Chris Rudge said in a view later validated by the ice dancing gold.

Canada's women will get another chance at gold Thursday when their ice hockey team square off against the United States in the final.

Both teams dispatched their semi-final rivals with ease on Monday, the Americans crushing Sweden 9-1 and Canada blanking Finland 5-0.

It will not be so easy for the Canadian men, for whom anything other than winning ice hockey gold would be deemed a national failure.

They remain in the competition but the loss to the U.S. has left them facing a qualifying playoff with Germany for the daunting prospect of meeting Russia in the quarter-finals.

REVENGE OF THE CURLERS

"We've just chosen a longer route to get to where we want to go," he said.

Canada did partially avenge their southern neighbors on Monday, by eliminating the U.S. men's curling team following a 7-2 victory.

"We felt we owed them one after the hockey last night," Canadian curler John Morris said.

Austria, another traditional winter sports powerhouse struggling in Vancouver, made a brighter start to the final week of competition when Wolfgang Loitzl, Andreas Kofler, Thomas Morgenstern and Gregor Schlierenzauer joined up to win gold in the team ski jumping.

Germany looked to be on course to win the men's final too when they led at the final changeover but Norway's Petter Northug unleashed a powerful burst to snatch his first gold of the Games after failing to win in three individual events.

(Editing by Ed Osmond)