SOCHI, Russia (AFP) - Russia's highly-vaunted figure skaters rode a patriotic wave to lay down a formidable marker at the Sochi Winter Olympics on Thursday, just hours before the official opening of one of the most politically-charged Games in history.
Yevgeny Plushenko, the 2006 Olympic figure skating champion, justified his controversial selection as the Russian veteran helped the hosts lead the new team competition.
Plushenko, 31, placed second in the men's short programme in a three-quarter full Iceberg Skating Palace behind inspired Japanese 19-year-old Yuzura Hanyu.
World champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov then put Russia top when they later waltzed to the lead in the pairs event.
Russia lead with 19 points with Canada second on 17 and China sitting two points behind. Japan are fourth with 13 points despite Hanyu's heroics in the men's event as their pairs duo Narumi Takahashi and Ryuichi Kihara placed just seventh in the ten-team field.
Plushenko reeled off a quad-triple toeloop combination, followed by a triple axel and triple lutz in his Tango De Roxanne from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack.
"After 12 surgeries on my body that I can skate in a fourth Olympics is great," said Plushenko.
Even Russian tennis diva Maria Sharapova, watching from the stands, got caught up in the electric atmosphere.
"Watched the pairs skating for the very first time. Didn't think I would be so nervous," tweeted Sharapova in town as a consultant with NBC.
The home team's performances on the ice set a confident tone ahead of the US$50 billion (S$63.4 billion) Games' first image-conscious set-piece, Friday's opening ceremony which takes place at the city's Fisht Stadium from 4pm GMT (12am on Saturday, Singapore time).
American skier Bode Miller and Jamaican bobsleigh pilot Winston Watts, with a combined age of 82, had earlier surged into the Olympic spotlight.
Miller, 36, began his campaign for a sixth medal at the Games by clocking the fastest time in the first men's downhill training run in Rosa Khutor, high above the Olympics' Black Sea hub.
The colourful American was quickest in a time of 2min 07.75sec but warned much could still happen before Sunday's medal race.
"It's great to win the first training run (but) it really is going to be about who improves the most from here, who learns this course the best," he said.
Second fastest was Swiss sensation Patrick Kueng, just 0.03sec behind Miller's time, followed by Austria's medal hope Matthias Mayer.
Where Miller was smooth, the women's downhillers suffered bumps and bruises before Austria's Anna Fenninger topped the standings of their downhill outing.
But that came only after a lengthy stoppage as organisers were forced to alter the configuration of the final jump.
Fenninger timed 1:41.73, finishing 0.21sec ahead of Fraenzi Aufdenblatten of Switzerland, with American veteran Julia Mancuso, the 2010 downhill silver medallist, third quickest.
Jamaica's Olympic bobsleigh team, destined to become the darlings of Sochi, pleaded with their adoring fans to stop sending money to fund their rags-to-riches story.
Pilot Watts, 46, admitted that the Internet campaign to fund their trip had been such a success that he and brakeman Marvin Dixon feared they would be damned as greedy opportunists if they didn't call a halt.
"The donations were just coming on and on. We had to stop them. We've called a press conference to do it," said Watts after US$178,000 was gathered in total, including from friends, family and fans as well as sponsors and the national federation.
"We just didn't want them to think that we're greedy people." The fast and furious men's snowboarding slopestyle event made its Olympic debut with reigning X-Games champion Maxence Parrot of Canada top-scoring with 97.50 points.
Britain's Billy Morgan had the honour of being the first competitor in action at the Games when he led off the qualifiers at Extreme Park.
Meanwhile, reigning champion Hannah Kearney of the United States topped the rankings in qualification for the women's moguls final.