Russia anxiously waits for Red Machine to find top gear

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By Steve Gutterman

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Every morning this week, Russians have woken to bad news from halfway around the world: no new Olympic medals.

In the first four days of competition at the Vancouver Games, Russia won only a single bronze medal -- a stunningly slow start for a winter-sports powerhouse that has seen the Olympics as a chance to show its might since Soviet times.

At the 2006 Winter Olympics, Russia won 22 medals, eight of them gold. In 1994 -- at a time when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has suggested Russia was on its knees -- it ranked first with 11 golds and 23 medals.

So far this year, Russia has settled for the bronze won by speedskater Ivan Skobrev on Saturday.

That left the team in what an announcer on state-run Rossiya-24 television called "a more than modest 19th place" -- right after tiny neighbor Estonia, which has managed a silver, and far behind rivals Germany, Canada and the United States.

There's still some time: the Vancouver Games have not yet reached their halfway point.

Burned in the past when their publicly voiced expectation have proved over-ambitious, Russian Olympic officials refused to make predictions before the Vancouver Games. Sovietsky Sport predicted four golds and said it hoped that was too cautious.

But Russia has missed some medal chances already, falling short in events such as biathlon, luge and cross-country skiing.

More momentously, a dynasty ended on Monday when pairs figure skaters Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov finished fourth. Russian and Soviet pairs had won the sport's top prize at 12 consecutive Games since 1964.

"The miracle is over," the newspaper Sport-Express announced on Wednesday.

In a more acerbic comment, the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets said Russia deserves a gold medal for excuses.

It said athletes and officials had partially blamed performances on factors such as wet snow during a biathlon event, a change in the track after a Georgian luger's death, and a crack-of-dawn drug test before a cross-country race.

Some of the events in which Russia is expecting gold are in progress or still to come.

State television networks accentuated the positive on Wednesday: the Russian hockey team's 8-2 drubbing of Latvia and figure skater Yevgeny Plushenko's first-place performance in the short program.

But Plushenko has only a slim lead over American Evan Lysacek going into Thursday's decisive free skate, and Russia may have to beat powerhouse Canada to win ice hockey gold.

President Dmitry Medvedev has suggested he may travel to Vancouver to watch the end of the Olympics if Russia makes the ice hockey final on February 28 -- the last day of the Games.

In the meantime, as a news anchor on state-run Rossiya-24 put it on Wednesday, "We're waiting and hoping."

(Editing by Miles Evans)