Guide to the Vancouver Olympics (pt. 3)
11. Why should you care about Nordic combined? Says Epstein: "Because you like learning new things, and Nordic combined is new to you. And this is the best moment in history for American fans to develop a sudden interest in this mix of ski-jumping and cross country skiing.
"The current crop of U.S. athletes pulled the team up by its spandex from irrelevance to team-to-beat. The U.S. busted out at 2009 Worlds, with Bill Demong and five-time Olympian Todd Lodwick combining to win all three of the individual events. The U.S. might have swept with a relay win too if Demong hadn't misplaced his competition bib, disqualifying him from the ski-jump. Vancouver is a chance to see whether the U.S. is the new world power in Nordic combined, or whether there was just something in the Americans' apple juice in '09."
12. Who will light the Olympic cauldron? Says Farber: "There are two superb candidates, one obvious and another who might need subtitles. Start with the familiar. Wayne Gretzky played in the 1998 Olympics, when Canada finished fourth in hockey. He was the general manager of Team Canada when it ended a 50-year gold medal drought in Salt Lake City. (He also presided over the seventh place disaster in Turin.) Gretzky might be most famous for his NHL connection, but having watched Team Canada get off the train in Nagano and seen locals fall in step behind hockey's Pied Piper, I will always consider the Olympics a grand part of his legacy.
"The other possibility is someone people wouldn't know -- on sight, anyway. Betty Fox is the mother of Terry Fox, who in 1980 was running across Canada from east to west to raise money for cancer research when the cancer that had necessitated the amputation of his leg wound up spreading to his lungs. If his mother completes the journey for her noble son two decades after his death, this 'wow' moment would not be lost on Canadians -- or on anyone around the globe who has participated in a Terry Fox run."
13. Which nation will top the medal count? Germany. SI predicts the Germans at 35 total medals, followed by Canada (30), the U.S. (27), and Norway and Austria (22 each). For the U.S. to finish on top, someone unexpected will have to emerge as a multiple medal winner, be it skier Bode Miller or speedskaters Trevor Marsicano (a former world champion) or J.R. Celski. Vonn's injury -- especially if it's severe -- will obviously affect the medal haul for the U.S.
14. What will be the first scandal? Says Epstein: "Chances are we'll see the first-ever positive test for CERA during an Olympics. CERA is a new and improved form of EPO (which boosts the blood's capacity to carry oxygen) that has only been available since 2008. Several samples from the Beijing Games came back positive for CERA, but those tests were conducted after the Olympics were finished, diluting the drama of a positive test.
"Given the number of endurance events in the Winter Games -- cross country skiing, Nordic combined, biathlon, distance events in speed skating -- there are plenty of athletes in Vancouver and Whistler who would stand to benefit from extra red blood cells. The first positive tests for CERA came in the 2008 Tour de France, only months after the drug became available, so clearly world class athletes did not hesitate to take it for a spin. If that first in-Olympics positive for CERA comes from someone who performed well, it would obviously be a big deal."
15. Is this the last Olympics for NHL players? Says Farber: "If Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz has his way, definitely. Wirtz, like many owners of the 30 NHL teams, sees no utility in having a two-week break that robs the season of its momentum -- such as it is -- for no tangible benefits. Complicating the matter is the site of the 2014 Games: Sochi, Russia. Forget the anticipated poor ratings for a European Games. The NHL and Russia, with its rival KHL, are not exactly best friends at the moment.
"Still, the issue must be collectively bargained, and the players are gung-ho for the Olympics. Indeed, Alex Ovechkin and other NHL Russian players have said they will be in Sochi in any case. The guess is NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who once extended the CBA to ensure league participation, will use the Olympics as a bargaining chip in negotiations, and the players will be back. Some of the best Olympic hockey moments came before the league joined the party in Nagano -- the Miracle on Ice, Peter Forsberg's shootout goal for Sweden in 1994 -- but the hockey world will mourn if the NHL bails and the IOC has to turn back the clock."
16. What's the best under-the-radar story for an American athlete? Says SI's S.L. Price: "It's all lining up in Vancouver for the ultimate contrarian: The world has long moved on from Bode Miller, all but dismissed him as one of the great American underachievers. And no wonder. The Alpine genius bombed out at Turin four years ago and hardly seemed to care; he hated playing face-man for the U.S. team and seemed delighted to blow off skiing's biggest stage and get back to partying.
"Now? No one expects a thing; all the attention has shifted to Vonn. Miller has reached Vancouver on his own quirky terms, and it would make perfect Bode-ian sense for him to suddenly lock in, unleash a few astonishing runs, win a gold medal -- and then, beer in hand, tell our oh-so-dismissive world to kiss his frosty ass."
Five brightest stars
Sidney Crosby, Canada, Men's Hockey
Speedskater Christine Nesbitt might be Canada's golden girl, but the biggest athlete at these Games from a home-team perspective is Crosby. He's not the captain, but he is the fulcrum. If he remains Sid the Kid -- probably a fatuous conceit, considering that he's 22 -- he is Canada's Child.
Shani Davis, U.S., Speedskating
No skater since Eric Heiden has commanded the 1,000 and 1,500 meters the way Davis does now, and no American Olympian has ever stood more apart from his sport's establishment and conventions. Davis has chosen not to join USA to skate the team pursuit in Vancouver, but he will skate four individual events at distances ranging from 500 to 5,000. SI predicts Davis will win the 1,000 and 1,500.
Lindsey Vonn, U.S., Alpine Skiing
No American athlete comes in with more buzz than the 25-year-old skier, an SI cover girl and the star of NBC's pre-Olympic marketing campaign. Vonn won the women's overall World Cup title the last two seasons and finished sixth in Turin. Her injury is the one to watch this week.
Shaun White, U.S., Snowboarding
The reigning Turin gold medalist said he had "the run of my life" last month -- a five-hit string of soaring acrobatics including consecutive double corks, diagonal flips and the unveiling of the double McTwist 1260. The last, a double-forward-flipping spin, was proclaimed by the 23-year-old rider "the best trick I've ever done." (The move is also the scariest, most demanding and hardest to master of any he has ever tackled.) "I don't think I've crashed as much in the last couple years as I have this season learning it," White told SI. "I was talking about it in interviews, and I was going to feel like a bit of a sissy if I didn't stick it."
Kim Yu-na, South Korea, Figure Skating
The 19-year-old is the reigning world champion and holds the record scores for both the short program and free skating. Dubbed by the South Korean media as the Figure Queen for her artistry, Kim moved to Toronto in 2006 for training and is coached by 1984 and '88 Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser. She'll be the heavy favorite and has support in Canada. Don't miss her. The Figure Queen
Five must-see events (all times Eastern)
1. Women's Snowboardcross, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 1 p.m.
Lindsey Jacobellis hot-dogged her way down to a silver in Turin. Now comes her chance at gold again versus Maelle Ricer and Helene Olafesen of Norway.
2. Women's Downhill, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2 p.m.
The signature Alpine race -- Vonn is a heavy favorite --and the ones most casual fans can best relate to. Vonn has won 17 World Cup titles in the downhill.
3. Men's Halfpipe Wednesday, Feb. 17, 4:05 p.m.
On a halfpipe with walls 22 feet high -- four feet higher than Turin -- Americans Shaun White, Scotty Lago and Louie Vito are expected to put on a show. "White is between a heavy and prohibitive favorite," says SI's Austin Murphy. "The X-Factor in the halfpipe will be the elements. There will be water in the flat-bottom, and these people who normally nick the pipe up a little bit will be taking two-inch gouges out of it. But my experience with him is Shaun White handles that sort of adversity better than anyone."
4. Men's Skicross, Feb. 21, 12:15 p.m.; Women Skicross, Feb. 23 1:30 p.m.
In this sport, making its Olympic debut, four skiers race in a pack at up to 65 mph down a course filled with turns, jumps and moguls. The U.S. men's hopefuls are Daron Rahlves and Casey Puckett.
5. Men's Hockey gold medal game, Feb. 28, 3:15 p.m.
If Canada is in the final, the country will come to a halt. No team will have more pressure to win in the history of modern sport.
Five breakout stars
1. Gillian Cooke, Great Britain, Bobsled
A YouTube sensation because she split her pants just before the start of a run at the Worlds in January, Cooke and teammate Nicola Minichiello, the reigning world champions, could deliver Great Britain a gold medal in this event. Plus, Cooke has a great sense of humor about the wardrobe malfunction: "At the time I was mortified," she told The Sunday Times. "But it's raised the profile of the sport right before the Olympics. It was funny, a giggle, but now we're back to focusing on our ultimate aim." The pair will go for Olympic gold in Whistler on Feb. 23 and 24
Steven Holcomb, U.S., Bobsled
The eagle-eyed driver might have gone blind if not for a radical surgery he underwent two years ago to combat his eye disease. Now the self-proclaimed computer nerd could drive his way to Everyman heroism.
Wang Meng, China, Short-track Speedskating
She likes fast cars as much as fast skating, and earlier this season she was so far ahead in a relay race that she straightened up and hot-dogged her way across the line to win a race in a photo finish. She has openly said she thinks she can win gold medals in all four events.
Petter Northug Jr., Norway, Cross Country
The colorful bad boy of an oft-colorless sport is likely to skate and trash talk his way to several Olympic medals.
Gregor Schlierenzauer, Austria, Ski Jumping
The 19-year-old will shoulder high expectations for his Olympic debut. He's coming off a 2008-09 breakthrough campaign, with the World Cup title and two medals in the World Championships, among his many successes. There is reason to believe he could continue his domination of the sport in Vancouver: Two of his 2009 Cup wins came at Whistler, the Olympic venue.
Team USA by the numbers
217 -- Total medals won by U.S. in Winter Olympics competition
129 -- U.S. team members who are competing in their first Olympics
31 -- U.S. team members who have medaled in previous Games
24 -- Difference in age between the oldest U.S. Olympians (curlers Tracey Sachtjen and John Benton, both 40) and the youngest (figure skaters Caydee Denney and Mirai Nagasu, both 16)
23 -- Members of the U.S. Olympic team who have children (17 dads, six moms)
11 -- Gold medals predicted for U.S. athletes by CanWest news service; it forecast 12 for Team Canada
6 -- U.S. athletes who are active or formerly served in the military
0 -- Days until the Opening Ceremonies