Thursday, February 11, 2010

5 Stories to Follow at Vancouver Olympics

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The Opening Ceremonies at the Vancouver Winter Olympics are just a day away

Lindsey Vonn’s Shin

Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn has been the face of these Olympics, at least in the United States. NBC has built much of its promotional effort around her, and she’s not only been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, she’s also in the SI swimsuit issue. But now there’s some question as to whether the two-time World Cup overall champion will even race in Whistler.

Vonn suffered an injury to her right shin during a slalom training run Feb. 3. It’s currently bruised and extremely painful. Vonn hasn’t skied since suffering the injury.

Canada’s Quest for Gold

The host country generally wins more medals than usual at an Olympic Games. For the Winter Games, economist Daniel Johnson claims the home-field advantage is worth about three total medals. (In the Summer Games, it balloons to 25 medals.)

But Canada hasn’t relied just on the host-country effect to boost its tally. The country launched a program called Own the Podium in 2005 that was designed to ensure that Canadian athletes win more medals in Vancouver and Whistler than any other country. It’s distributed over $100 million to athletes, researchers and coaches.

Hockey Armegeddon

Of course, Canada could win every gold medal at the Games, but if they don’t win the men’s ice hockey gold, the entire country will be disappointed. The Canadian obsession with hockey surpasses anything that we’re familar with in America. It’s not that Canada cares about hockey: It thinks it is hockey.

But going into the Olympic tournament, the Canadians aren’t the top-rated team in the world. That would be Russia, which many think is one of the best teams ever assembled. The potential for a Canada-vs.-Russia final is something that ice hockey buffs the world over will be secretly rooting for, and would be just plainly epic.

Keeping Score

Ah, figure skating. So much like a sport, yet so strange and fascinating. It used to be so simple, figuring out who won — the scores would go up, you’d see how close they were to 6.0, and take it from there. But then a judging scandal at the 2002 Winter Olympics threw the sport into chaos, and left us with the International Judging System.

How complicated is it? The page on the U.S. Figure Skating site that tries to explain the judging system to fans runs nearly 3,000 words of semi-comprehensible language.

Look for skaters with great technical ability, like Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko and South Korea’s Kim Yu-Na, to thrive.

U.S. Hopes in Obscure Events

In the Winter Games, the United States has usually won its medals in more-familar winter sports like alpine skiing and speedskating. But going into Vancouver, some of the top U.S. medal contenders come from sports that many Americans might never have even seen.

There’s the suddenly powerful Nordic combined team (that’s an event that includes both ski jumping and cross-country skiing), with three possible medalists. Erin Hamlin won the women’s luge world title in 2009, as did Steve Holcomb and his four-man bobsled team. Tim Burke could contend in the biathlon, and three or four cross-country skiers have a shot at the podium. Get ready to cheer for a great round of shooting in the biathlon, or a clean ski-jump landing, because you know if Americans are doing well, you’re going to see it on NBC.

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