SOCHI - In a finish a Hollywood scriptwriter would struggle to match, the women's downhill at Russia's Winter Olympics produced a tie for gold for the first time on Wednesday, in a thrilling start to the fifth full day of competition. Despite clear skies and mild temperatures, complaints about slushy snow conditions in the Caucasus mountains melted away, while on the Black Sea coast excitement grew with the first puck set to be dropped in the men's ice hockey competition.

History was made when Switzerland's Dominique Gisin and Tina Maze of Slovenia shared the women's Olympic Alpine skiing downhill gold medal after clocking exactly the same time down the gleaming Rosa Khutor descent. "It's better to be two on top than one to be 1/100th behind. Two happy faces," said Maze, Slovenia's first Winter Games gold medallist. Few had given much of a chance to 28-year-old Gisin, a pilot in the Swiss Air Force.

"I have had a lot of injuries in my life, I had nine knee surgeries. I was close to the podium a lot. I never medalled on a big event, so what comes around, goes around," she said. Alpine skiers have shared medals before at the Olympics, but never gold. It was the second time in two days that women athletes set a precedent at the Olympics. On Tuesday night, women ski jumpers finally had the chance to prove their mettle, 90 years after the first men competed at a Winter Games and following a long battle for inclusion.

Added to the shock failure of U.S. snowboard king Shaun White to win a medal in the halfpipe on Tuesday, sport has grabbed the attention of the watching world and pushed a troubled buildup to the Sochi Games further into the background.

Going into Russia's first Winter Games, the biggest worry was the threat of attack by Islamist militants based in the north Caucasus hundreds of kilometres to the east. On Tuesday, a militant group urged followers to pray for an earthquake in Sochi during the Olympics to avenge Muslims who died there fighting "Russian infidels", but as yet there has been no violence directly linked to the Games.

The cost of staging the Games, estimated at $51 billion - although that figure is disputed - and allegations of widespread corruption have also slipped from the headlines for now. President Vladimir Putin, whose reputation rides on a successful Games, also came under fire after Russia introduced a law last year banning the promotion of gay propaganda among minors, which critics said encouraged anti-gay violence. Putin's allies rallied to his defence after a satirist and prominent Kremlin critic drew a comparison between the Sochi Games and the Olympics held in Nazi Germany in 1936. In a blog on the Olympics published by Ekho Moskvy radio station, Viktor Shenderovich said that 15-year-old figure-skating sensation Yulia Lipnitskaya should not be used to lend legitimacy to Putin. He made parallels with a German shotputter who became a symbol of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, raising hackles among politicians in Russian parliament on Tuesday. Svetlana Zhurova, a former Olympic champion speedskater, said Shenderovich's blog "fits into the campaign against the Olympics that has unfolded in the Western media."

For many Russians, victory in World War Two is the proudest moment in their country's checkered 20th century history. Some 27 million Soviet citizens died in the conflict.

The more the action and excitement take hold, the happier Russia, and Putin, will be and later on Wednesday the host nation could be celebrating pairs figure skating gold when world and European champions Maxim Trankov and Tatiana Volosozhar take to the ice. Russia linger in seventh place in the medals table, with Germany ahead of Norway and Canada at the top.

German favourite Eric Frenzel won the Nordic Combined normal hill, landing the longest jump of the day and then mastering a slushy cross-country course to beat Japan's Akito Watabe. American speed skater Shani Davis will be bidding for his third straight gold in the 1,000 metres and aiming to put a dent in the Dutch domination on the ice.

Australian Torah Bright defends her snowboarding halfpipe title against rivals who include America's Kelly Clark -- the 2002 winner is appearing at her fourth Games. In the luge doubles, Austrian brothers Andreas and Wolfgang Linger seek their third successive Winter Games gold. The International Olympic Committee and International Luge Federation will remember Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili, whose death from injuries in a training crash four years ago to the day at the Vancouver Games stunned the sporting world.

"We are laying flowers at the luge centre in Whistler," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said in Sochi. The puck drops for the start of action in the eagerly anticipated men's ice hockey tournament, in which Czech Republic play Sweden and Latvia meet Switzerland in the opening group games.

Medals Table

TEAM    Gold    Silver    Bronze    Total

Germany    6    1    1    8

Canada    4    4    2    10

Norway    4    3    5    12

Netherlands    4    2    4    10

United States    3    1    5    9

Switzerland    3    0    1    4

Russian Fed.    2    4    3    9

Austria    1    4    0    5

Slovenia    1    1    2    4

France    1    0    2    3

Belarus    1    0    0    1

Korea    1    0    0    1

Poland    1    0    0    1

Slovakia    1    0    0    1

Sweden    0    3    1    4

Czech Republic    0    2    1    3

Japan    0    2    1    3

Italy    0    1    1    2

Australia    0    1    0    1

China    0    1    0    1

Finland    0    1    0    1

Great Britain    0    0    1    1

Latvia    0    0    1    1

Ukraine    0    0    1    1