Vonn taking smooth ride toward Vancouver, more Olympic notes
Lindsey Vonn extended her World Cup lead with three wins in Austria
U.S. men's hockey team finds a leader to lead it in Vancouver
Korea faces new scandal as it tries to capture 2018 Olympic Games
She's up. She's down. She's up again. The roller coaster ride that is Lindsey Vonn's season rose to its apex again over the weekend, when the defending overall World Cup champion swept three speed races in Haus im Enstal, Austria. Vonn won downhills on Friday and Saturday and captured a Super-G race on Sunday, easing fears that a damaged left arm she'd hurt in a fall last month would impair her Olympic ambitions. The victories boosted her lead in this season's World Cup standings to a robust 192 points ahead of Germany's Maria Riesch.
After injuring the arm during a giant slalom race in Lienz, Austria, Vonn essentially taped her hand to her left pole for support. With a splint on the arm, she missed a gate during a giant slalom run in Zagreb the previous weekend, temporarily losing her lead in the overall season standings.
So was it just a matter of confidence that drove Vonn last weekend? Maybe. Was the injury healing itself? Perhaps. It also helped that these were speed events. Although the downhills and Super-Gs are more potentially treacherous because of their higher acceleration, the slaloms and giant slaloms, the so-called technical events, are the races with the most abrupt turns over gradients that are not as steep. Skiers need to grip and push quickly in order to navigate those turns, many remarking after successful downhills that they simply "let their skis run." In other words, they skied so smoothly, they actually did as little as possible. Vonn will have a more telling test this week as the circuit returns to the technical races.
While insisting that she is "not unbeatable" in speed events, Vonn referred to her race in the Super-G as a "perfect run." She became the first U.S. skier ever to win World Cup races on three straight days and the first woman from any country to accomplish the feat since Germany's Katja Seizinger in 1997. The victory also gave her 28 career titles on the World Cup circuit, pushing her ahead of Phil Mahre and leaving her second among U.S. alpiners behind Bode Miller's 31.
U.S. Nordic team deeper than expected
So who is going to be the first member of the U.S. Nordic combined team to become an Olympic star? Coming off world championship gold medals last season, Bill Demong and Todd Lodwick seemed like equally logical candidates. But Johnny Spillane, an Olympic veteran, himself, had been having the best season of any U.S. Nordic athlete this year ... until last weekend.
Demong and Lodwick took first and second on the large hill event at Val di Fiamme, Italy, skiing and jumping themselves back into the medal picture. The race marked the first time in history that the U.S. took the first two places at a Nordic combined World Cup. Spillane, who was among the leaders early in the race, could have made it a sweep, but Lodwick accidentally stepped on his pole, effectively hampering his skiing, especially on the difficult inclines of the course. Both Demong and Lodwick had resolved to pace Spillane through most of the course, figuring that he would be the most likely skier to earn a U.S. victory. Instead he finished 22nd. The triumph was also Demong's first trip to the podium this season. He finished in 33 minutes, 49.9 seconds, 15.3 seconds ahead of his teammate.
Referring to his inconsistency this year as mysterious, Demong confessed after the race that he had been "scratching my head" over his struggles during the past few months. Wonder no more.
Throw a tomato
Look for more flying tomatoes in Vancouver. As expected, Shaun White punched his ticket to another Olympics on Saturday after winning his second Grand Prix event of the season at Mammoth Mountain, Calif.
Snowboarders are competing in a series of five events this winter to determine Olympic berths, and White's second victory on the halfpipe officially secured one of them, since places are determined by the top two results. White and other riders competed with printed notes attached to their bibs that read, "I ride for Kevin," in honor of teammate Kevin Pearce, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a training accident two weeks ago and was recently upgraded from critical to serious condition.
Salt Lake gold medalist Kelly Clark also punched her ticket with a victory on Wednesday, and Gretchen Bleiler, the 2006 silver medalist in the halfpipe, also won her first competition of the season later in the week, moving her a step closer to an Olympic berth. The rest of the team will be finalized after competitions in Park City on Jan. 22 and 23.
Burke gets a little help from his girlfriend
Tim Burke's historic season continued over the weekend, as he won silver medal in Oberhof, Germany in the mass start event, the first time a U.S. biathlete has ever medaled in that race. With the victory, Burke recaptured the yellow jersey as the overall leader in the World Cup standings. Norwegian legend Ole-Einar Bjorndalen, a nine-time Olympic medalist, won the race by over a minute. Burke was helped by the fact that he stayed behind in Oberhof during the holiday break with his girlfriend, Andrea Henkel, the German biathlete who won the women's mass start. The windy, foggy conditions of his training during the Christmas season mirrored those on the course over the weekend, leaving Burke well prepared for the challenges of a slow pace in which it was tough to maintain vision and gauge gaps in the field. Burke's two misses on the shooting range were among the fewest on the afternoon, a testament to the effect that the fog had on the racers.
The team also announced its roster for the Games in Vancouver. Joining Burke will be Jay Hakkinen, Jeremy Teela, Lowell Bailey and Wynn Roberts. Haley Johnson, Sara Studebaker, Lanny Barnes and Laura Spector will comprise the women's team. Barnes, 27, will be on this year's team without her twin sister and 2006 Olympic teammate, Tracy, who has been beset by injuries.
Experience wins the day for U.S. hockey team
USA Hockey officially named New Jersey's Jamie Langenbrunner Olympic team captain for Vancouver. Langenbrunner was one of only three players on the roster, including Chris Drury of the Rangers and Brian Rafalski of the Red Wings, with prior Olympic experience. Since Drury and Langenbrunner are both captains of their respective NHL clubs, they were the two most logical choices to receive the honor. Still, Drury was not among the four alternate captains named to the squad. Rafalski (the team's oldest player at 36), L.A.'s team captain Dustin Brown, New Jersey's Zach Parise and Nashville's Ryan Suter were given those designations. Drury's omission was notable given that his head coach in New York, John Tortorella, is also one of Ron Wilson's assistants with the Olympic team.
NBC set to take financial hit in Vancouver
NBC has confirmed that it expects losses of up to $200 million during the Vancouver Games, even though they expect ad sales to match those of previous winter Olympics. The announcement speaks to the financial realities facing the television industry, but it may also be strategic. NBC holds the rights to the Games in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Games in London. The IOC is going to hold bidding for the next two Olympics, the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, sometime after the Vancouver Games finish. NBC is expected to face stiff competition from ABC/ESPN and perhaps a less aggressive bid from CBS for those rights. The word of modest expectations from the incumbent Olympic network may be enough to dampen IOC expectations and give the competition pause in evaluating the specifics of its bids.
Korea plays losing Olympic game
Having twice fallen just short in its attempt to bring the first the first Winter Games to Korea, the city of Pyeongchang would seem well positioned in its bid to land the 2018 Olympics, running against two European cities: Munich, Germany and Annecy, France. While the Korean Olympic movement has been adept at playing the political game, it has also been on the edge of scandal. In 2004, Kim Un-yong, an IOC member who had run for the committee's presidency, was sentenced to 30 months in jail on corruption charges. Last year, the Korean government pardoned IOC member Lee Kun-hee, the former Samsung chairman, of tax evasion charges, enabling him to support the Pyeongchang bid he once chaired.
Now another scandal has emerged. Chun Shin-il, the President of the Korean Wrestling Federation, admitted in a Korean courtroom this week to giving money to wrestling referees at the Beijing Olympics. Chun categorized the sums as "gifts of appreciation" rather than outright bribes. He said he handed over the cash in bathrooms at the Olympic venues.