By Julian Linden
SOCHI, Russia, Feb 10 (Reuters) - At every Olympics, Summer or Winter, there is always one person who stands out from the rest, an individual who becomes an irresistible and enduring reminder of the Games.
That "Face of the Games" is an unofficial accolade that is decided not by judges or by referees, but by public opinion.
For the past year, the face of the Sochi Olympics has been the Russian President Vladimir Putin - but no longer.
In his place, a pint-sized Russian teenager has emerged, melting hearts around the world in a way no politician ever could.
Just as Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut did at Munich in 1972, Julia Lipnitskaya is changing the perception of Russia, not through force but through grace.
Virtually unheard of before the Games, the 15-year-old is on her way to becoming the next global phenomenon after helping Russia win gold in the figure skating team event.
Although she was on a Russian team packed with stars, Lipnitskaya stole the show on Sunday with a performance so breathtaking it is being seen as the icebreaker the Sochi Olympics needed to win over a sceptical world.
At the end of her routine the packed crowd inside the Iceberg, the gleaming stadium staging the figure skating events, instinctively rose to their feet for a thunderous ovation, tossing bouquets and teddy bears onto the ice.
As banks of press photographers clamoured for the best shot of the sport's new darling, Lipnitskaya waved to the crowd and flashed a sheepish smile.
Putin personally congratulated her and she was mobbed by Russian media, with local newspapers and television dubbing her the 'little genius'.
Russians love their figure skaters but the rest of the world is smitten with Lipnitskaya as well.
Around the globe, her name and footage of her routine was trending on social media sites while American television commentators were gushing about the arrival of a superstar who is sure to drive ratings through the roof in the sport's biggest market.
By winning the team event, Lipnitskaya became Russia's youngest Winter Olympic gold medallist, and the youngest gold medallist in figure skating for 78 years.
She is now favourite to win next week's individual title, one of the blue-riband events of the Winter Olympics.
In a sport decided by the subjective scores of judges, star appeal can be the difference between winning and losing and Lipnitskaya has it all.
Petite, standing 5ft 2in (1.58 metres) tall, she looks like a real-life Russian doll, charming the crowds as much with her poise and precision as her rubbery flexibility and athleticism.
In the short programme, she completed all her mandatory jumps and spins with consummate ease before blowing away the opposition in the free skate.
In the long programme, she played the role of the doomed little girl in the red coat from Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List who seems oblivious to the horrors of the Holocaust.
By her own admission, Lipnitskaya's performance in the team event was not perfect, yet it was spellbinding enough to win over the judges, who awarded her with the second highest score ever given to a female figure skater.
Lipnitskaya becomes the latest in a long line of athletes who have helped shunt politics into the background after the Sochi Games began with questions over Russia's "gay propaganda" law and criticism of their $50-billion price tag.
Nazi Germany leader Adolf Hitler hoped to use the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin to promote his ideals of racial supremacy and had threatened to ban blacks and jews.
Yet, it was a black American athlete, Jesse Owens, who is remembered as the star of the Games after winning four track and field gold medals.
In 1972, the hostility of the Cold War was starting to ease with the United States and the Soviet Union agreeing to an era of detente.
At the Munich Olympics that same year, Russian gymnast Olga Korbut emerged with perfect timing, capturing the hearts of the western world with her three gold medals and inspiring a generation of girls to take up gymnastics.
She was invited to the White House to meet President Richard Nixon, who told her that her captivating performances had done more to improve relations between their two countries than anything the politicians had managed in years.
Four years later, at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, another petite eastern European became the centre of attention after more than 20 African countries had boycotted the Games.
The African states were protesting against the International Olympic Committee's decision not to suspend New Zealand for sending their national rugby team to South Africa when it was banned for apartheid.
Into this came Nadia Comaneci, who won three gold medals in Montreal and is forever remembered as the first gymnast to be awarded the perfect score of 10.
There was no shortage of celebrities at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Jamaica sent a bobsled team which became the inspiration for the movie 'Cool Runnings' and a British skijumper Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards developed a cult following for finishing so far behind all his rivals.
But the face of the Games was the East German figure skater Katarina Witt, who won her second individual Olympic gold medal and was described by Time magazine as "the most beautiful face of socialism" while reclusive North Korea issued commerative stamps featuring her image.
BATON HANDED OVER
While most athletes are recognised as the face of the games for sporting success, there are some exceptions. The most notorious was Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who was stripped of the gold medal he was awarded for winning the 100 metres at Seoul in 1988 after testing positive for drugs.
Cathy Freeman became the face of the 2000 Sydney Games after she was unwittingly thrust into Australia's 200-year struggle for reconciliation between blacks and whites.
As the country's most prominent Aboriginal sports person, Freeman reluctantly accepted her role even though the pressure on her was overbearing at times.
She was selected to light the Olympic flame, an honour that only increased the intense interest in her, then won the 400 metres gold against the backdrop of 100,000 flashing cameras to fulfill her own dreams.
In doing so, she joined the likes of Owens, Korbut and Comaneci by helping to change the hopes and perception of an entire race, and now the baton has been handed to Lipnitskaya. (Editing by Ossian Shine)