By Mike Collett-White
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Russia fell to Finland in the big men's hockey clash at the Winter Olympics on Wednesday, robbing the hosts of a shot at the gold they covet most, while athletes and officials reacted with shock to the deaths of protesters in neighbouring Ukraine.
The roar of the home fans at the Bolshoy Ice Dome was not enough to inspire the team to victory over Finland, who have been on the podium in four of the last five Olympics.
Finland won 3-1 in a result that took some of the wind out of home sails at Russia's first Winter Games.
Hockey heavyweights Canada and the United States advanced to meet in one of Friday's semi-finals, beating Latvia and the Czech Republic respectively, while top seeds Sweden saw off Slovenia 5-0 and will meet Finland.
At the adjacent Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi, 15-year-old figure skater Julia Lipnitskaya, who mesmerised the Games with her performance in the team event, fell in the short programme to add to the host nation's heartache.
She looked devastated as she left the ice, and ahead of Thursday's free skating programme, she is placed fourth. Defending champion Kim Yuna leads.
On Wednesday eight gold medals were decided.
They included the men's giant slalom, which Ted Ligety won convincingly to claim the first U.S. Alpine skiing gold of the Games. Thick fog, rain and snow that made skiing so difficult over the last two days had lifted, and conditions were clear.
But Ukraine's Olympic team struggled to come to terms with deadly clashes at home in which at least 26 people were killed.
Ukrainian athletes asked for permission to wear black arm bands to honour those killed, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which bans any sort of political or commemorative symbols during the Games, refused.
"Yes it's a distraction, everyone's talking about it, people are saying 'what's happened in your country, what's happened?'" said Dmytro Mytsak, a Ukrainian giant slalom skier from Kiev.
"We're getting support from the Russian spectators and I'm grateful for that," the 18-year-old added.
Former pole vault champion and Ukraine's Olympic chief Sergey Bubka, in Sochi for the Games, expressed bewilderment at how events in Kiev and elsewhere had spiralled out of control.
"I cannot believe it's happened and we are in such a difficult situation today," said Bubka, also an adviser to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, against whom much of the anti-government protesters' ire is directed.
"Again I appeal to both parties to stop the violence," Bubka told international news agencies. "Try to find the peace...keep us together and live in peace, because this is most important. For us, what happened in Ukraine is a big shock."
"STOP THE BLOODSHED"
IOC President Thomas Bach added: "The way they have continued to represent their nation with great dignity is a credit to them and their country. Their presence here is a symbol that sport can build bridges and help to bring people from different backgrounds together in peace."
Russia, and its president, Vladimir Putin, are key players in Ukraine's crisis. Putin spoke with Yanukovich by telephone overnight.
On Wednesday, Moscow demanded Ukrainian opposition leaders "stop the bloodshed" in Kiev and said Russia would use all its influence to bring peace to its "friendly brother state".
Putin will hope events in Ukraine do not overshadow Russia's first Winter Games, where state-of-the-art venues and thrilling action have pushed criticism during the build-up to the Olympics firmly into the background.
The president attributed the criticism - aimed at a law banning the promotion of homosexuality among minors and at the costs of staging the event - to the West's Cold War mentality.
Threatened demonstrations have been few and far between, but the all-women protest group Pussy Riot attracted international media attention on Tuesday when they were detained for several hours at a Sochi police station.
On Wednesday, group members were beaten with whips by Cossacks who are helping patrol Sochi during the Olympics, as they tried to perform an anti-Putin protest song.
Video footage showed a man aiming what appeared to be pepper spray at one of them, a Cossack beating people with a whip and masks being ripped from protesters' heads.
"Most likely, this is some sort of a cheap provocation," said Konstantin Perenizhko, a deputy to the regional Cossack military leader.
Cossacks, once the patrolmen of Russia's borderlands, are meant to maintain order and work with police to make arrests.
MOUNTAIN GOLD RUSH
In a rush of gold in the mountains, Ligety claimed the United States' first Alpine skiing title of the Games by beating two Frenchmen to the top of the podium.
Russia's Vic Wild won the Olympic men's snowboard parallel giant slalom gold medal minutes after his wife, Alena Zavarzina, had won bronze behind Swiss champion Patrizia Kummer in the women's event.
Norway, anchored by the indomitable Marit Bjoergen, won the women's team sprint classic gold medal, while in the men's, Finland prevailed after an appeal lodged by Germany following a crash in the final stages was rejected.
Norway triumphed again in the mixed relay biathlon, meaning that 40-year-old Ole Einar Bjoerndalen became the most decorated Winter Games athlete with his 13th Olympic medal and joined compatriot and former cross-country skier Bjorn Daehli on a record eight golds.
There was a rare sight at the speed skating arena as the person on top of the podium was not Dutch - Martina Sablikova retaining her 5,000 metres title to become the Czech Republic's most successful Olympian.
It was business as usual behind her though as Ireen Wust's silver and Carien Kleibeuker's bronze kept the medals rolling in for the Netherlands, who have dominated speed skating in Sochi.
Norway went top of the overall medals table with nine golds, ahead of Germany's eight and the U.S. on seven.
In the last event to be decided on Wednesday, Canada's Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse won a second successive Olympic women's bobsleigh gold after pipping the USA-1 sled of Elana Meyers by a tenth of a second.
The Americans had led going into the fourth and final run but hit the wall to lose by a tenth of a second and deny brakeman Lauryn Williams the honour of becoming the first woman to win gold in Summer and Winter Olympics following her sprint relay victory at London 2012.
Back down in Sochi, Britain upset world champions Sweden to claim a place in Friday's men's curling final, where they will face Canada. Canada will meet Sweden in Thursday's women's final, a re-run of the 2010 gold medal game from Vancouver.
(Reporting by Reuters Olympics teams in Sochi and Rosa Khutor. Editing by Mitch Phillips)