I can tell that a lot of my visitors liked my blogs to do about the London Olympic Games. Heck, the last time someone clicked on one of my ‘athletes to watch’ blogs from those games was just today! Even my blogs reviewing the London Games of 2012 and the other two times still received recent hits. Seeing that has inspired me to do more Olympic writing. And it definitely inspires me to write about these ones to watch for the Sochi Games of 2014.
I know there’s been a lot of talk about outside factors involving the Sochi Games. In this blog I’m sticking to talking about what the Games are supposed to be about: the athletes. Here are ten athletes who are poised to dazzle us or even thrill us from February 7th to the 22nd.
-Marit Bjorgen/Norway – Nordic Skiing: Norway has won more Winter Olympic medals than any other nation. And it’s no wonder. Winter sports are in their blood with their biggest legacies in Cross Country Skiing, Ski Jumping, Nordic Combined and Long Track Speed Skating. Even recently they’ve been showing excellent prowess in Alpine Skiing and Freestyle Skiing. One of the best female skiers ever, Marit Bjorgen, will be competing in her fourth Olympics here in Sochi.
Marit has an illustrious career starting quietly with silvers in 2002 and 2006. Vancouver 2010 was her moment as she won five medals, three of them gold. She has also won the overall World Cup title three years and nineteen World Championship medals including twelve total gold. At last year’s World Championships, she really had the show in her hands as she won four gold and a silver.
Here in Sochi, she comes with probably the most expectations of any female Nordic skier. She’s expected to perform big and has the credentials for it. However she does face rivalry. She is currently ranked third in the World Cup overall standings with her 25 year-old Norwegian teammate Therese Johaug leading in the distance events and 25 year-old German Denise Herrmann leading in the sprint events. She’s also expected to receive rivalry from her traditional rival Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk. Nevertheless if there’s one female skier who can most rise to the challenge, it’s her.
-Ted Ligety/U.S.A. – Alpine Skiing: The United States has always been a force in Alpine Skiing. This century has seen a lot of big names like Lindsay Vonn, Bode Miller and Julia Mancuso. Another name on the list is Ted Ligety. At the 2006 Olympics, Ted came from nowhere to take gold in the combined event. Since then he has been most dominant in the giant slalom event but has had seasons with ups and downs. He was finished on top of the World Cup giant slalom event in 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2013. However he had a lackluster 2010 Winter Olympics where his best finish was fifth. 2013 not only saw him win his fourth World Cup giant slalom title but a third place finish overall and winning three gold medals at the World Championships.
Interesting is that he has his own ski business. As for this season, it hasn’t been so easy for Ted. He’s had four World Cup wins but finds himself fourth overall and third in the giant slalom. He faces a strong challenge from Austrian Marcel Hirscher and France’s Alexis Pinturault in the giant slalom. It will all boil down on each race day. Especially the giant slalom on February 19th.
-Tina Maze/Slovenia – Alpine Skiing: Slovenia has never won a Winter Olympic gold medal. Two silvers and five bronzes but never a gold. That could change thanks to Tina Maze. She has had an excellent career as a skier that includes Slovenia’s two silvers, both won in Vancouver 2010, and six World Cham,pionship medals. Two of them gold. However her biggest year was 2013 when she won three World Championship medals including gold in the Super-G and the World Cup overall title which she won with the highest total points ever.
This season has been a difficult one for her as she has struggled in consistency in races and it wasn’t until just two weeks ago she finally won her first World Cup race of the season: a downhill. She will be hard pressed to repeat her winning with threats from Germany’s Maria Riesch-Hoefl and 18 year-old American sensation Mikaele Shiffrin. Also it may be possible Slovenia’s first ever Winter Olympic gold could be won by another athlete like ski jumper Petr Prevc or snowboarder Žan Košir. Nevertheless the Olympics can be anyone’s game in Alpine Skiing and it just could be Tina’s.
-Shaun White/U.S.A. – Snowboarding: What else is there to say about the ‘Flying Tomato?’ His has definitely been one of the most popular Winter Olympians in recent years, if not the most. He has won numerous X Games medals, he has made the cover of Rolling Stone twice and is commonly seen in endorsements. Already he has made Olympic history as the first snowboarder to win back-to-back gold medals, in the Halfpipe event. This year is a unique year as he will be trying for a threepeat in the halfpipe.
Shaun has been absent for the 2013 World Championships but has continuous won events in X Games competitions. He is expected to win the halpipe again but he does however face some hungry young guns like Switzerland’s Yuri Podladchikov and Japan’s Taku Hiraoka trying to take him down.
He was also expected to be a top contender in the new slopestyle event this year. However it was not to be as he fell days ago after hitting the rail hard during a training run and was injured. He chose to withdraw from that event but reassures all that he will be ready for the halfpipe. However there have been other boarders who suffered falls on the course at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park and their injuries caused them to withdraw before even competing and two even requiring hospitalizing. His fate will be decided on the halfpipe on the 11th.
-Shani Davis/U.S.A. – Long-Track Speed Skating: The threepeat in Olympic Long Track Speed Skating is a feat only accomplished twice and by women. First was by American Bonnie Blair in the 500m from 1988 to 1994. The second was Germany’s Claudia Pechstein in the 5000m from 1994 to 2002. We have the chance for a male to do it here in Sochi with Shani Davis.
Davis has been a speed skater known for a controversial career. First came before the 2002 Winter Olympics when he was a short track speed skater. He finished second in a race at the US Olympic trials but it was under investigation of race fixing between him and club teammates Rusty Smith and Apolo Anton Ohno. It was taken before a court of arbitration and none of the skaters were found guilty. Davis however would not skate in Salt Lake City.
Davis would later switch to long track speed skating and became the fastest at the 1000m. For the 2006 Turin Olympics Davis qualified for three individual events and won gold in the 1000m and silver in the 1500m. However it was his non-participation in the Team Pursuit event that caught a lot of flack. Many people felt he should’ve been put on but David neglected making room for some skaters who were just competing in pursuit. The incident has kept him being at odds with U.S. Speedskating. Under less controversy, Davis again won 1000m gold and 1500m silver.
Here in Sochi, Davis is expected to win 1000m and become the first man to win three consecutive golds in a single event. It’s not without its challenges. At last year’s World Championships, he finished third behind Kazakhstan’s Denis Kuzin and South Korea’s Mo Tae Bum. However Davis has won the 1000m in three of the four World Cup meets this year. Plus he is still strong in the 1500m winning silver at last years’ Worlds. It will all be decided at the Adler Oval.
-Germany’s Luge Relay Team: There are five new events at the Sochi Winter Olympics. One of which is the Team Relay event in the luge. In this event there’s one male luger, one female and one doubles team. Each have a single run but when one luger finishes their run, they hit a touch-sensitive pad to open the start gate for the next sled of the team. Fastest total time wins. It should be no surprise that Germany is the team expected to win. German lugers have won 27 of the 40 gold medals in luge since it was added to the Olympics back in 1964. Germany also won all three singles and doubles categories at last year’s World Championships. So it’s no surprise they won the Team Relay at those championships too using the sledders that won the single-sled competitions in the relay.
One thing we should take note is that the relay will take place the day after the last single-sled competition–men’s doubles–will be held. It is possible that the three World Championship-winning sledders–Felix Loch in men’s singles, Natalie Giesenberger in women’s singles, and the doubles team of Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt–could either win gold or be Germany’s best finisher in their respective event and thus on the relay team. But anything can happen in the heat of Olympic competition and there could be a different German competitor that finishes best on the team. Whatever sledders they include in the relay, you can be sure they’ll win it.
-Kim Yu-Na/South Korea – Figure Skating: Those of you remember the Vancouver Winter Olympics will remember a figure skater from South Korea named Kim Yu Na. She not only won gold but took figure skating to a new level of excellence with new world records in points. She became the first South Korean to win a figure skating medal.
Continuing after the Vancouver Olympics has not been easy. There was period for the first few years she lacked motivation and even sat out the 2011-2012 season. By the 2012-2013 season, she decided to return not just to competition but to her childhood coaches back in Korea. It was successful as she returned to her title of World Champion winning by the biggest margin since the new scoring system was adopted in 2005.
However the 2013-2014 season has been rather challenging. She actually had to drop out of the Skate Canada competition because of a metatarsal injury on her right foot. She recovered in time to compete at the Golden Spin of Zagreb competition in December and won. Nevertheless she’s expected to be rivaled by Japan’s Mao Asada who won silver behind her in Vancouver, 15 year-old Russian newcomer Julia Lipnitskaya who just won the European Championships and American Gracie Gold. Kim plans on becoming a member of the IOC after the Sochi Games. In the meantime, she has one last thing to prove in the Olympic stage.
-Sara Takanashi/Japan – Ski Jumping: Women’s Ski Jumping makes its debut in Sochi. There will be only one event: the Normal Hill. The heavy favorite to win is 17 year-old jumper Sara Takanashi. Last year she won the World Cup in women’s Ski jumping and won a silver medal in the Normal Hill event losing to American Sarah Hendrickson. This year Takanashi has had a stellar year with ten international victories including her most recent wins last weekend in Austria.
Despite her stellar year, she is not alone at the top. She’s expected to receive a challenge from American Sarah Hendrickson who beat her at the World Championships as well as challenges from Austria’s Jacqueline Seifriedsberger and Germany’s Carina Vogt. Nevertheless it will all be decided at the RusSki Gorki Jumping Centre. Watch herstory be made February 11th.
-Tatiana Volosozhar & Maxim Trankov/Russia – Figure Skating: You can’t expect a list of athletes to watch not to include those from the host country, can you? Russia has a legacy in pairs figure skating going back as far as the days of the U.S.S.R. It all started with the Protopopovs in 1964 and 1968. It continued with Irina Rodnina and her male partners from 1972 to 1980. Continuing on in 1984, the dominance continued even after the break-up of the U.S.S.R. as pairs competing for Russia would continue to finish on top. By the 21st century it looked like Russia’s dominance was waning as a Russian pair tied a Canadian pair for the gold in 2002 and the Russian pair that won gold in 2006 was the only Russian pair to even make the podium. Then in Vancouver 2010, not a single Russian pair made it on the podium for the first time since 1960.
With the Sochi Olympics coming, you could bet they want to bring Russia back on top in pairs figure skating and they found it in the pair of Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov. Back at the Vancouver Olympics, they not only skated with different partners but different countries. Maxim finished in 7th competing for Russia and Tatiana finished 8th competing for Ukraine. She then made the trip to Russia shortly after Vancouver when it became obvious there were no male partners in Ukraine for her to progress further. Since her teaming up with Trankov, it’s been victorious as the two won world Championship silvers in 2011 and 2012 and then won the World last year: the first Russian pair since 2005 to win the World Championships.
This year the pair have been solid winning all but one of the five competitions they’ve entered. They come to Sochi as the heavy favorites and the ones to bring Russian superiority back to pairs figure skating. However it will not go unchallenged as their top threat has been their traditional rivals of Germany’s Savchenko and Szolkowy who were World Champions in 2011 and 2012 and have given the Russians their only loss this season. Nevertheless it will all be decided at the Iceberg Skating Palace on the 11th and 12th.
-Russia’s National Hockey Team (men and women): I’m sure all of you can remember the days of Soviet dominance in ice hockey. Ever since the U.S.S.R. started competing at the winter Olympics in 1956, their hockey team was invincible with players that were better than even the best NHL pros. In the ten Winter Olympics they played, they won eight times losing only to the Americans in the two Olympics the U.S.A. hosted in 1960 and 1980. Since the Unified Team’s win of the gold in 1992, Russia has since found itself amongst equals in the hockey world but have not returned to the top. Since Russia first competed on their own starting in 1994, the men’s hockey team have only won 1998 silver and 2002 bronze with the gold medals divided amongst Sweden, Canada and the Czech Republic.
This time Russia has the whole nation expecting them to win here. And I mean whole. Even Vladimir Putin told Aleksandr Ovechkin that he wants to see Russia’s team win the gold. Sixteen of the 25 members play for the NHL. Other NHL stars on the team including Ovechkin are Evgeny Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk. The other nine players are from Russian professional leagues. They come to Sochi as 2012 World Champions and they’re expected to repeat here, even though they finished off the podium last year. It is possible as the men’s competition is usually a competition of at least six equals. Sports Illustrated predicts Sweden to win with Russia coming in second and Canada third. Only the next two weeks will tell the tale.
As for the women, women’s hockey has traditionally been a case of Canada vs. the U.S. with one other Scandinavian team as a lightweight rival. Russia has only competed in three of the four times women’s hockey has been contested and has never made the semi-finals. The women are hoping things will change especially after winning bronze at last year’s World Championships. The women have nowhere else to go but up and I’m confident they can make their country proud here.
So there you have it. Those are ten athletes to watch out for in Sochi. I know they’re not guaranteed to win. I know the Olympics that the gold medal doesn’t go to the one with the most pre-Games accolades. The gold medal goes to the one who’s the most there at that moment. Nevertheless it will be interesting to see whether they seize it or not these two weeks.
Also those of you wondering why no Canadians on my list? Well I have a separate blog of Canadians to watch.