RPT-FACTBOX-Olympics-Russia and the U.S. - great sporting rivalries

Thu Feb 13, 2014 1:12pm GMT

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Feb 13 (Reuters) - The United States and Russia, including their Soviet days, have one of the longest and most competitive rivalries in international sport, often fuelled by the political differences. Here is a look at some of the memorable showdowns and rivalries between the two sporting superpowers:

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ICE HOCKEY

Heading into the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, the Soviet Union was considered a virtual certainty to win the gold medal in the men's ice hockey tournament. The 'Big Red Machine' had won gold at the previous four Olympics and boasted a team packed with seasoned players fully supported by the State and professional in everything but name.

By comparison, the United States had won just one medal in the same period and had to pick their team from university students because professionals were not allowed to compete under the rules at the time.

A few days before the Olympics, the Soviet Union crushed the Americans 10-3 in a warm-up game in New York but in the medal round at Lake Placid, the U.S. pulled off one of the greatest upsets in ice hockey history by winning 4-3 in a game that became known as the Miracle on Ice'. In a somewhat complex tournament format, the U.S. went on to win the gold while the USSR took silver.

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BASKETBALL

The 1972 men's basketball final between the United States and the Soviet Union remains one of the most contentious games in Olympic history. The Americans had never lost a match at the Olympics since basketball was admitted to the Games in 1936 and looked set to continue their streak when they squared off against the USSR in the gold medal decider.

With three seconds to go, the United States took a one-point lead when Doug Collins sank two free throws and after Russia failed to score, the Americans celebrated victory

However, confusion over time outs led to a restart and Russia, from their own line, somehow manufactured a score to win it and cause pandemonium.

The U.S. immediately lodged a protest but it was dismissed and they refused to attend the medal ceremony. To this day, the American players have still not collected their medals, insisting they were robbed of the gold.

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CHESS

Another classic confrontation took place in 1972 as every contest between the United States and the USSR became a matter of huge national importance for both countries. That year's world chess championship between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky was no different and captured the imagination of the world.

Spassky was the defending champion and Fischer the challenger and their highly-anticipated match in Iceland became international news, with the games being shown on television, a rarity in chess.

After losing the first game then forfeiting the second, Fischer threatened to quit and go home but later agreed to stay and eventually won the 21-game series to end the Soviet Union's 24-year-domination of the world championships.

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WRESTLING

The two countries have always had a strong rivalry on the wrestling mat and nowhere more than in the freestyle super heavyweight class, which was introduced to the Olympic programme in 1972.

Soviet wrestlers won the first three gold medals but the streak ended in 1984 when the Eastern bloc boycotted the Los Angeles Games and American Bruce Baumgartner won the gold. At Seoul in 1988, with both countries back in the fold, Baumgartner reached the final against David Gobejishvili of the USSR, marking the first time the two nations had met in the gold medal match.

Gobejishvili triumphed but four years later, the American turned the tables on him in the round-robin and went on to win his second gold.

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SWIMMING

The United States has long been the dominant power in Olympic swimming but at the 1996 Atlanta Games, Russian sprinter Alexander Popov was the reigning champion and man to beat in the 50 and 100 metres freestyle, the latter the blue-riband event in the pool.

His chief rival was the American Gary Hall Jr, and the pair made no secret of their mutual dislike for each other, trading insults and shadow boxing on the blocks.

Popov, beat Hall by 0.08 seconds in the 100 then by 0.13 in the 50, where he was the defending champion, to become the first man to win the freestyle sprint doubles at two Olympics.

Even after he won, he continued his attacks on Hall, saying he would never be an Olympic champion because he came from a "family of losers", in reference to the American's father who won two Olympic silvers and a bronze.

Hall Jnr responded by saying the Russian brought "a new definition to the world shallow."

Four years later, at the Sydney Olympics, Hall won the 50, in a dead-heat with his American team mate Anthony Ervin, as Popov's reign ended.

In 2004, Hall won again in Athens and finished his career with five golds (including relays) to Popov's four.

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TENNIS

Russia were relative latecomers to the top echelon of world tennis, which had been dominated by Americans for most of the 20th century, but started to climb the rankings in the mid 1990s, producing a handful of grand slam champions.

In 2000, Marat Safin thrashed Pete Sampras to win the U.S. Open in New York then in 2004 Russia's Maria Sharapova stunned America's Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final in what was considered at the time to be one of the biggest upsets in tennis history.

Sharapova beat Williams again in their next match, at the end of year championships in Los Angeles, triggering the start of a long and occasionally bitter rivalry.

On the court, Williams has dominated Sharapova, winning each of their last 12 matches, including the 2007 Australian Open final, the 2012 London Olympics final and last year's French Open final.

But off the court, Sharapova, who grew up in Sochi and was one of the torchbearers at the opening ceremony, has been the big winner, earning far more than Williams in sponsorship deals and becoming the highest-paid female athlete in all sports.

(Compiled by Julian Linden/editing by Mitch Phillips)

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