The Sochi Winter Olympics officially open Friday, and while much of the focus before the Games has trained on the cost, corruption, an anti-gay law, safety issues, and Russia’s general unpreparedness, there will be plenty of stories to watch that involve actual Olympic sports too.
For American fans, the United States enters Sochi four years after winning 37 medals, including nine golds, at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. It was the largest medal haul for the U.S. in Winter Olympics history, and the Americans are no doubt looking to repeat their success. Here are 10 stories American and international Olympic fans should find interesting over the next two weeks:
1. Front Runners: While some events are expected to come down to the wire, some athletes are widely expected to dominate their events. American skier Ted Ligety (giant slalom skiing) is already one of the faces of this Olympics thanks to a creative marketing video. Meryl Davis and Charlie White (ice dance), Shani Davis (long-track speed skating), and JR Celski (short-track speed skating) are all Americans widely expected to medal in their events. Other athletes, like Canada’s Patrick Chan (figure skating), Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal (alpine skiing), and South Korea’s Yuna Kim (ladies’ figure skating) enter Sochi as heavy medal favorites.
2. The Underdogs: The Olympics are famous for the underdogs who come through in the big moments. Skiers Bode Miller and Julia Mancuso are big American names and former Olympic medalists, but both will try to play the spoiler role in Sochi, and both have a good chance to reach the podium in multiple events. Another underdog to watch is figure skater Jeremy Abbott, who, if he skates two clean programs, has an outside shot at a medal (Abbott began the Olympics with a rough showing in the team figure skating event Thursday). In the biathlon, the only not-new sport in which the Americans have never won a single medal, the U.S. thinks it has a chance in Sochi. Tim Burke won the 2013 biathon world championship and is among the contenders to hit the podium in Russia.
3. Gender Parity: Women’s ski jumping, which finally made the cut after many years of lobbying by athletes and federations alike, is new to the Olympics in Sochi. One of the leaders of the fight for inclusion is American Lindsay Van, who along with teen phenom Sarah Hendrickson is expected to contend for gold. While the women will only compete in one event (the K-95, or “normal” hill) to the men’s three (K-95, K-125 or “large” hill, and team event), this groundbreaking inclusion paves the way for full ski jumping parity in the future.
4. World Records: Many of Sochi’s venues sit at sea level, so if you’re tuning into the Games to see speed-based world records broken in events like long- and short-track speed skating, you’re likely going to be disappointed. There are other records, however, that could fall. In figure skating’s men’s pairs and ice dance events, there’s a chance that athletes pushing themselves to gold could reach record high scores.
5. Two-Sport Athletes: You might recognize two names on the American women’s bobsled team from the Summer Olympics in London. Sprinter Lauryn Williams and hurdler Lolo Jones both made the American team in the two-person bobsled, albeit on separate teams. The inclusion of high-profile track athletes like Jones and Williams garnered more attention for women’s bobsled, but it also caused controversy, as several women who missed the team expressed displeasure at the track stars’ inclusion. Both Jones and Williams have medaled on the bobsled grand prix circuit in recent years. Williams won a team gold in London and an individual silver in Athens; Jones is looking for her first Olympic medal.
6. Two Tales of Davis and White: United States ice dance national champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White — who are also the defending world champs — will try to do what no other American ice dancers have done by winning Olympic gold. Their main rivals in this quest are Canadian defending Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, whom the American duo has defeated in their last three meetings. Davis and White are popular names among history-seeking American athletes: speed skater Shani Davis and snowboarder Shaun White both have a chance to become the first American athletes to win three consecutive gold medals in the same event — Davis in the 1000 meters and White in the snowboard half-pipe.
7. Hockey: Canada won gold in Vancouver on an overtime goal from Sidney Crosby that ended an amazing battle with the United States, and the two sides enter Sochi among the favorites to repeat their medal triumphs this year. That said, they’ll face a number of challenges, first in the rink itself. Sochi’s rink is wider and longer than those used in North America, which will make for prettier, cleaner hockey but could also put the Americans and Canadians at a slight disadvantage. Both sides will also have to get by other favorites like Sweden, the world’s top-ranked team, and Russia, which is led by superstars Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Evgeni Malkin and is determined to win gold on home soil. Olympic hockey provides something the NHL rarely does: the best players playing together against each other. But enjoy it now, because there’s a decent chance this could be the last Olympics for quite awhile in which NHL players compete. In women’s hockey, the United States and Canada are the favorites to battle for gold.
8. Jamaica’s Bobsled Team: Romanticized in the 1993 film “Cool Runnings” for their appearance at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, the Jamaican bobsled team is back in the Olympics for the fifth time and the first since the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. The Jamaicans qualified in January but financial difficulties made their trip to Sochi an uncertainty. The team already cut itself in half and will compete in the two-man bobsled instead of the four-man event “Cool Runnings” made famous, but they were able to secure enough money to make the trip — though their luggage and equipment was missing on arrival. The Jamaicans are hardly a favorite to medal, but their presence will make for a fun story nonetheless.
9. Sister, Sister, Sister: A Canadian trio of sisters — Maxime, Chloe and Justine Dufour-Lapointe — will compete together and against each other for medals in freestyle mogul skiing, an event in which the Canadians have found success in recent Olympics. 22-year-old Chloe, who finished fifth at the Vancouver Games, is ranked second in the world behind American Hannah Kearney. The Dufour-Lapointe sisters aren’t the only trio of siblings competing in Sochi: New Zealand’s Jossi, Byron and Beau James Wells all made the Olympics as free-style skiers as well. Interestingly, three siblings making the Olympics isn’t as rare as you might think — it’s happened before at the 1960, 1976, and 1980 Games, and in 1988, Mexico sent four brothers to compete in the bobsled.
10. Norwegian Curling Uniforms: Because, well, they’re awesome:
Check out Norway's Curling team *unis* (Pic via Cassie Kovacevich/AP) pic.twitter.com/zx42ZcSC7p
— Phil Hecken (@PhilHecken) January 21, 2014
Billy Flanagan is a Winter Olympics guru and the Special Events Manager at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.