Winter Olympics: The superstars of Sochi 2014

Shaun White (USA)  Snowboarding
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If the X-Games are viewed as the great threat to the Winter Olympics by the International Olympic Committee, then Shaun White has proved to be the perfect bridge between the clash of the two cultures — the non-conformism of the freestyle sports versus the conservative European values of the IOC.

White is a different beast to the 19-year-old  that burst on the scene in the halfpipe at the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006.

Gone are the long red locks that earned White the nickname the Flying Tomato. Gone is the goofy teen who asked figure skating star Sasha Cohen out on a date on American TV. Still ever-present though is the hunger for success.

White is not just a two-time Olympic snowboard champion. He is now a businessman with estimated earnings of up to $20 million a year, a champion skateboarder and burgeoning rock star with his band Bad Things.

No expense is spared in his quest for success. Before the Vancouver Olympics, his sponsor Red Bull built White his own halfpipe in Colorado that could only be accessed by helicopter. They have done the same before Sochi, this time at Perisher in the Snowy Mountains.

Stephen SamuelsonMikaela Shiffrin (USA)  Alpine skiing

With a knee injury ruling Lindsey Vonn out of the US squad, the golden girl hopes have fallen on the shoulders of an 18-year-old from New Hampshire and Colorado who just finished high school in December.

Not that slalom specialist Mikaela Shiffrin is feeling the pressure. She was on the World Cup circuit when she was 15 and by 17 was a world champion. She was recently named alongside NFL quarterback Peyton Manning as Colorado’s Athlete of the Year.

Her domination of the slalom circuit has earned her the tag as the Mozart of alpine skiing. It’s not just that she is a child prodigy, it is the technical expertise she displays, making the most treacherous course seem like an effortless ski down the slopes.

When she won the opening World Cup slalom race this season in Levi, Finland, Shiffrin was given a special prize: a reindeer, which she named Rudolph.

Stephen SamuelsonViktor Ahn (Russia)  Speed skating

It’s a match made in heaven. Russia has never won a short-track speed skating medal, Ahn Hyun-soo won four at one Olympics, including three gold medals.

Ahn should be well known to Australian audiences. When he was 16 at Salt Lake City, he was part of the crash that cleared the path for Steven Bradbury’s stunning gold medal in the 1000m. Four years later, in Turin, he dominated for South Korea, with four medals.

Two years ago, embittered by his omission from the Vancouver Olympics, the Seoul-born champion changed his first name to Viktor and declared his allegiance to Russia where he now trains full-time near Moscow. For Ahn, adopting the name Viktor was more than just a simple case of Russification, it was a statement of intent.

The four-time world champion heads into Sochi on the back of winning five titles at the European Championships in January, leaving one competitor, Sjinkie Knegt of the Netherlands, so incensed that he flipped him the bird as he crossed the finish line.

Stephen SamuelsonPetter Northug (Norway) Cross-country skiing

Cross-country skiing is the Winter Olympics’ most traditional sport and Petter Northug is its least conventional star. Northug, who is a top cross-country skier has rock star status in Norway, and lives up to the hype.

He has a reputation as a bad winner and sore loser. But with four Olympic medals — including two gold — and a record-equalling nine world championship titles,   Northug can walk the walk.

And, he is versatile. At the Vancouver Olympics he finished third in the sport’s shortest event, the sprint, but managed to win gold in its longest, the blue ribbon 50km race. But its Northug’s style that sets him apart. The Norwegian is a champagne-class stirrer, particularly of cross-border rivals Sweden.

At the 2011 World Championships, Northug anchored Norway to a gold-medal performance in the relay but not before mocking the Swedes in the home straight and slowing down to tease his rivals near the finish line.

His antics led one Swedish commentator to say that Northug ”is a wolf in the ski tracks and a pig at the finish line”. ”If they [Swedes] get sour, that’s just a double victory for me,” Northug said after the event.

Stephen SamuelsonKim Yu-na (South Korea) Figure skating

The spotlight shines no brighter at the Winter Olympics than on the sport of figure skating, and Kim Yu-na is its brightest star. The Ice Queen from South Korea has never missed a podium place at any championship she entered, culminating in record scores and a gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics.

That victory gave Kim unprecedented fame and fortune for a female athlete in South Korea.

Forbes magazine ranked her in the top 10 highest-paid female  sport stars in the world. An instantly recognisable celebrity at home and abroad, Kim became an endorsement magnet, promoting major brands such as Hyundai, Nike, Samsung and Kookmin Bank (which reportedly paid her $US1 million for her world-record score in Vancouver). She even recorded a song with pop star Lee Seung-gi for South Korea’s FIFA World Cup campaign in 2010.

Kim enters the Sochi Olympics as the reigning world champion in figure skating, and should she succeed in winning gold she will be the first back-to-back ladies’  singles champion in the event since Katerina Witt of East Germany in 1984 and 1988.

South Korea has won 45 medals at the Winter Olympics, and 44 of them have been   for speed skating (both short and long track). Kim is the exception, as she so often is.

Stephen SamuelsonAlex Ovechkin (Russia) – Ice hockey

As the best player in the host nation’s most popular team, Alex Ovechkin could be the face of the Sochi Games.

Fame and fortune have come easily to the Russian. He is engaged to tennis star Maria Kirilenko and is one of the top five paid players in the National Hockey League where he is the skipper of the Washington Capitals. But despite being consistently one of the league’s leading scorers, Ovechkin is yet to win the Stanley Cup, with the Caps crashing out in the playoffs in each of the past six seasons. His Olympic record is bleaker, with a fourth and sixth place finish at the past two Games.

The Soviet Union won seven out of nine Olympic tournaments from 1960 to 1992 but since its break-up Russia is yet to win one.

The pressure will be on Ovechkin to match Sidney Crosby’s efforts in Vancouver four years ago where the host nation won the gold medal.

If he does, he will match his mother Tatyana Ovechkina who won a gold medal at a home Olympics in basketball at the Moscow 1980 Games.

Stephen SamuelsonFelix Loch (Germany)  Luge

It was no surprise when Felix Loch won the gold medal in the men’s luge in Vancouver in 2010. After all, every champion in the Olympic history of the event had been German speakers. Even the two Italian winners, Armin Zoggeler and Paul Hildgartner, came from  towns near the Austrian border where sprechen Deutsch was more often heard than parla Italiano. What separated Loch from his predecessors was his age. He was just 20, the youngest Olympic champion in luge —  a crowning glory to go with his world championship win as an 18-year-old.

In between both events, Loch produced the fastest speed recorded on a luge track when he rocketed down the Whistler course at 153.9 km/h during an Olympic test event in 2009.

In a sport renowned for the longevity of its champions, it was a phenomenal beginning. He has now won four world titles, and with the introduction of the luge relay, Loch could leave Sochi with another two Olympic gold medals.

Stephen SamuelsonIreen Wust (Netherlands)  Speed skating

Speed skating may have lost some of its Olympic lustre to its brasher short-track cousin, but not in The Netherlands. They treat short-track with the sort of sneer Test cricket watchers give the Twenty20 game.

Since 1928, the Dutch have won 86 medals at the Winter Olympics, and 82 of them have been in the speed skating oval. And like Australia’s passion for the 1500m freestyle, it’s the longer events that capture the hearts of the Dutch.

Ireen Wust burst on the scene at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, where she became the  youngest Dutch Winter Olympics champion in the 3000m. She followed that up with victory in the 1500m at the Vancouver Games. Since then Wust has won three all-round world titles and she could take up to four gold medals in Sochi.

Stephen SamuelsonEmil Svendsen (Norway)  Biathlon

Biathlon is a discipline that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. The origins of the sport date back to the late 18th century and it has been part of the Olympic program since 1960, with women’s biathlon part of the program since the 1992 Games in Albertville.

Modern Olympic biathlon comprises five events for men and five for women — individual race, sprint, pursuit, mass start race, and relay, and there is also a mixed relay. In each event, athletes ski a number of loops, which vary in distance and are interspersed with shooting at targets, alternating between a prone and standing position. Time or penalty loops are added for missed shots, and the athlete with the fastest time is the winner.

The event has traditionally been dominated by Europeans, with Magdalena Neuner of Germany and Norwegian Ole Einar Bjorndalen widely considered the sport’s greatest. After winning two gold medals and a silver at the 2010 Vancouver Games, along with a number of world championships, Norway’s Emil Svendsen is considered one of the front-runners in both the individual and relay biathlon events in Sochi.

Alex NicholsonSara Takanashi (Japan)  Ski jump

Men’s ski jumping is one of the most popular sports at the Winter Olympics and has been a feature since the inaugural 1924 Games, but the women will make their debut in Sochi. What better way to start the event than with a 17-year-old superstar leading the way.

Japan’s Sara Takanashi is the red-hot favourite to claim gold. Takanashi has won seven of the eight World Cup events this season, well clear of  Germany’s Carina Vogt. The concept for this sport is a simple one — jump as far as possible while maintaining form. Athletes ski down a steep ramp and jump until reaching a landing zone, with the skiers attempting to land smoothly and within the critical (or construction) point, or even exceed it, in order to get the highest number of points.

While distance is the main component when the judges award points, other considerations include length of in-run attempt, steadiness of the skis mid-flight, body balance, smoothness of landing, and wind condition. Despite a string of public scandals, a failed pop career and run-ins with the law, Matti Nykanen of Finland is the undisputed king of ski jumping, having won four Olympic gold medals, including three at the 1988 Calgary Games.

Alex Nicholson

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Jubilee Oval lobbies to host Thunder

Jubilee Oval, the Sydney home ground of the St George Illawarra NRL team, is believed to be among several stadiums keen to host the Sydney Thunder Big Bash League team next summer.
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The Thunder will be locked out of their headquarters for most of the new season because ANZ Stadium is a venue for football’s Asia Cup – one of the sport’s major international events outside of the FIFA World Cup – which kicks off on January 9 next year.

The Thunder will officially open the tender process for stadiums to host matches this week but Fairfax Media understands representatives of the Sydney Showground, Manuka Oval in Canberra, Blacktown International Sportspark and Jubilee Oval have expressed interest.

It was not the first time Jubilee Oval, the Dragons’ home ground since 1950, has been positioned to stage cricket matches. A few years ago, when former NSW opening batsman Steve Small worked for the St George group, a plan was developed to establish the ground as the Twenty20 base for the NSW Breakers women’s cricket team.

”We looked into drop-in pitches and it would’ve been ideal,” said Small, who now coaches the Penrith first-grade team. ”It’s similar in its dimensions to North Sydney Oval and I think it’d be great for T20.”

In recent times, Jubilee Oval has also been used by Sydney FC to host trials for their men’s A-League team and matches involving their women’s side, while the World Cup-bound Socceroos adopted it as a training venue. However, cricket would open a new frontier for the stadium, which was redeveloped over the last decade through multimillion-dollar grants provided by the federal and state governments.

Sydney Thunder chief executive Nick Cummins would not confirm which organisations were jockeying for the home ground rights when contacted by Fairfax Media.

Picking the new Thunderdome would not be an easy decision after the franchise recently revealed most of its supporter base is in the north-west suburbs of the city, including Kellyville, Castle Hill and Baulkham Hills.

The franchise’s management is mindful the Thunder could lose that support if they play at a ground deemed too far for the ”heartland” to travel.

”We will be making the decision on the basis of three criteria,” Cummins said. ”Financial, the interests of our fans, and cricket facilities and suitability.”

He said that looking after the team’s ”heartland” would be a priority and that this included ensuring the winning venue was easily accessible by public transport.

Other venues that could bid to become the Thunderdome in 2014-15 include North Sydney Oval, the Sydney Cricket Ground and perhaps even Drummoyne Oval.

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Jets share spoils as Griffiths sees red on return, gallery 

JOEL Griffiths was red-carded for dissent on his homecoming as the Newcastle Jets snatched athrilling 2-all draw with Western Sydney Wanderers at Hunter Stadium on Saturday night.
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Joel Griffiths shows his frustration. PICTURE: JONATHAN CARROLL

An Adam Taggart stunner opened the scoring for the Jets. Picture: JONATHAN CARROLL

The Wanderers celebrate after hitting the front against the Jets. Picture: JONATHAN CARROLL

Wanderers player Matthew Spiranovic wins the header ahead of his opponent. Picture: JONATHAN CARROLL

Picture shows Wanderers player Matthew Spiranovic, left, and Jets player Zenon Caravella, right. Picture: JONATHAN CARROLL

Western Sydney Wanderers fans celebrate. Picture: JONATHAN CARROLL

Adam Taggart celebrates after opening the scoring. Picture: JONATHAN CARROLL

Adam Taggart celebrates after opening the scoring. Picture: JONATHAN CARROLL

Western Sydney Wanderers fans celebrate. Picture: JONATHAN CARROLL

Western Sydney Wanderers fans celebrate. Picture: JONATHAN CARROLL

Picture shows Wanderers player Nikolai Topor-Stanley, left, and Jets player Nicholas Ward, right. Picture: JONATHAN CARROLL

Adam Taggart was involved in a controversial decision in the final seconds of the match, where he was taken out by Ante Covic. Picture: JONATHAN CARROLL

Adam Taggart was involved in a controversial decision in the final seconds of the match, where he was taken out by Ante Covic. Picture: JONATHAN CARROLL

The Squadron show their support in their new location in bay 60. Picture: JONATHAN CARROLL

Picture shows Wanderers player , from left, Dean Heffernan, Aaron Mooy, and Shinji Ono. Aaron Mooy has just equalised for the Wanderers: Picture: JONATHAN CARROLL

Aaron Mooy celebrates his equaliser. Picture: JONATHAN CARROLL

In a dramatic incident in the dying seconds, Griffiths received his marching orders for verbally abusing referee Ben Williams. He is now expected to serve at least a one-game suspension.

In between the brain snap from Griffiths and a pre-match injury to Emile Heskey, Jets striker Adam Taggart scored two goals – his seventh and eighth of the season – to earn interim coach Clayton Zane his first competition point since replacing the sacked Gary van Egmond last week.

Newcastle led 1-0 after a sensational Taggart solo goal but conceded twice totrail 2-1 before Taggart equalised in stoppage time.

Griffiths, playing in his first game for Newcastle in almost five years after stints in China and with Sydney FC, was introduced as a 64th-minute replacement and received a rousing reception from the 15,924-strong crowd.

The 34-year-old had been on the pitch less than two minutes when the visitors grabbed the lead, after a pinball-like scramble that ended with the ball rebounding into the net off Wanderers Michael Beachamp when Josh Brillante attempted a clearance.

In his 26 minutes of game time the best scoring chance Griffiths had was a 76th-minute free kick that passed harmlessly over the cross-bar.The Jets were dealt a significant setback before the match had even kicked off, when marquee striker Heskey suffered back spasms in the warm-up.Heskey was unable to take his place in the starting line-up and his last-minute withdrawal prompted a promotion for versatile substitute Nick Ward, in his third appearance since joining the Jets.

Ward was preferred to coach Clayton Zane’s other striking options, English veteran Michael Bridges and Griffiths.Ward came close to opening the scoring in the 13th minute, prompting a diving save from Wanderers keeper Ante Covic.

Thirteen minutes later, Covic was left with no chance when Taggart unleashed a right-foot screamer from 25 metres out.Taggart’s shot curled perfectly into the top left-hand corner for his seventh goal of the season and first since his memorable hat-trick against Melbourne Heart on November 24.

The home side looked set to take a deserved lead into the half-time break before Wanderers midfielder Aaron Mooy equalised with a pinpoint free kick in the 45th minute.It is now six games since Newcastle’s last win and they have slipped to ninth position, a point behind the top six.

There are 10 rounds remaining in the regular season, which leaves the Jets with ample time to turn their faltering campaign around.But there are increasingly worrying signs that they will miss the finals for the fourth successive season.

Rumours were circulating on Saturday that Newcastle officials hope to bolster their squad by signing former Socceroo David Carney, who is a free agent after parting company with the New York Red Bulls.

Joel Griffiths and Adam Taggart celebrate the Jets late equaliser. Picture: JONATHAN CARROLL

Joel Griffiths and Adam Taggart celebrate the Jets late equaliser. Picture: JONATHAN CARROLL

Joel Griffiths would be shown a red card for dissent, after fulltime. Picture: JONATHAN CARROLL

Barbs fly, police called in as house swap gets dirty

House Exchange: Andrea Moczarski with Jack, six, India, three, and Jane Konrad. Photo: Danielle SmithFor the English mother, it was the house swap from hell. When Andrea Moczarski swapped her four-bedroom home in Britain for an Aussie family’s three-bedroom home on NSW’s central coast, she was expecting a relaxed Christmas with her two young children.
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Arriving in the dark, the English family stumbled around in search of a light – and stepped in one of seven piles of dog poo left by an untended dog. And once they gained entry to the Australian home owned by the Browns (not their real name), it was dirty and had cockroaches, Ms Moczarski said.

From then, the house swap descended into threats, insults on social media and calls to the police. Within a week, the Brown family had left Ms Moczarski’s home near Manchester and gave the British family three hours to vacate theirs.

For families such as the Moczarskis and the Browns, house swaps have become an increasingly popular and cheap way to travel.

But, as one home-exchange veteran said: ”One person’s clean isn’t always another person’s clean.”

The site used by the two families, HomeForExchange南京夜网, says it has organised more than 500,000 swaps but fielded only 200 complaints. Most of these were about ”broken cup” issues or varying standards of cleanliness, the site’s owner, Ans Lammers, said.

”Once we received a complaint from a member that she found dust on top of a kitchen cupboard when she stood up a stair to reach the top,” Ms Lammers said.

Ms Moczarski said the NSW home did not appear to have been cleaned, although it was tidied. A gift was left for the two children. But there was little space for the family to hang their clothes during their three-week stay. An earlier agreement to swap cars had not worked out because the Australians could not get British insurance.

The British family spent $200 on cleaning products.

”We had the attitude that we are here now, let’s just sort it out,” Ms Moczarski said. ”We were cleaning the carpet, cleaning the chairs, buying air freshener.”

When she contacted the Browns for advice after the vacuum cleaner broke, the Aussies were so offended by the suggestion their house was dirty that they quit the British home in protest. As the English family returned from church on the Sunday before Christmas, a relative of the Browns told them to get out, prompting Ms Moczarski to call the police. After consulting two police officers, the family refused to vacate the NSW home.

When Mrs Brown told friends on Facebook the swap was going badly, she added: ”Unbelievably, they think our house is the house from hell.”

The Browns contacted HomeForExchange南京夜网 for advice.

”I tend to see the reaction of Andrea on the dog poo and cockroaches issue [as] a bit exaggerated,” Ms Lammers said.

Bee Cogger, a spokeswoman for houseswapholidays南京夜网.au, said she had not heard of such a case and cleanliness should be discussed in depth before a swap.

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Benji Marshall earns tick of approval on debut for Auckland Blues

It’s too early to anoint Benji Marshall’s switch of codes a runaway success, but it will clearly not be an abject failure.
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Though the jury remains out on whether Marshall will transfer his league brilliance to Super Rugby this season, that scenario is now at least plausible after his first half of rugby in more than a decade.

More than anything the 28-year-old former Wests Tigers conductor exuded confidence from the time he ran on to Memorial Park to the moment he signed the last of hundreds of autographs after full-time.

He didn’t blink when told he was taking the restarts moments before kick off. He didn’t flinch when Hurricanes openside Ardie Savea flattened him early or drop his lip when Cardiff Vaega blew past his inside shoulder. Marshall took it all in, adjusted, improved, and actually looked the part by the time he took a seat at half-time. In a nutshell, the Blues pivot was having fun.

“It was a bit of a blur, to be honest,” he said after the match. “The first 20 minutes I sort of struggled to get a feel for it, but after we had that quarter-time break I sort of realised what it was going to take to direct the team around. I did everything I wanted to achieve. I didn’t set the game on fire, but in terms of getting control and feel for playing 10 I got a lot out of it.”

He stood a tad deep at times, looked a little awkward in contact, but had a crack early, made a nice half break running behind Jackson Willison and passed with growing confidence once the Blues got some possession.

“When you don’t have the ball it’s a pretty tough sport,” he said. “I just did as much as I could in that second quarter to make sure we held on to the ball and possession, and once we did that it felt great. Look, from a personal point of view I’m happy with what I got out of it. It wasn’t about winning the game, it wasn’t about being the best player on the field. It was just about getting through what we’ve practised and getting a feel for the game.”

For the record, the Hurricanes won the match 38-35, outscoring the Blues six tries to five in an entertaining pre-season hit out. But there was little doubt who the 6000-strong crowd had come to see – the ground announcer gave him top billing as the side’s ran on. Marshall lapped it all up.

“I had Ardie Savea coming from the inside a lot of times and got a good feel for what is going to be coming at me. I enjoyed every part of it and I’m looking forward to the next game,” he said before laughing at his attempt at cleaning out a ruck.

“I hit a couple, but I don’t think I was hitting anybody. It’s just different. Until you get a feel for the game you don’t understand. I still don’t really know the rules around the ruck, so I’m guessing there, to be honest. It’s a learning curve and hopefully I can get better each game.

“There was a lot of sliding defence. The systems are just different to league and it’s something I’m slowly getting used to. I’ve got a lot to learn. I suppose this is the first step in a massive line of steps to get in the right place. That’s what’s it’s about. It’s my first game in over 10 years.”

And then Marshall started actually sounding like a rugby player.

“The first 20 was a bit rusty,” he said. ”We had about six turnovers and they scored three times off those so I learned a big lesson after the first 20, which was to keep us a bit more direct and control the ball and make sure we had enough people in rucks to keep the ball.”

All of which was music to the ears of coach John Kirwan who knocked on the head any notion Marshall would switch positions and hinted he’d get another extended run against the Waratahs in Sydney this weekend.

“I thought he was great,” Kirwan said. ”The whole team played well but he blended in incredibly well and ran the team. For his first hit out he can be proud. He’s worked hard. I spoke to him quickly at half-time and he said ‘woah, that was a bit different’.

“That’s his position. He showed enough today to have another crack … I was hoping this would happen and it’s happening. He’s worked incredibly hard, but it was a good start for him. There were little bits to work on but for his first game in 16 years or whatever, it was a good start.”

With Baden Kerr getting a knock Marshall might have to share time with Chris Noakes this week, but the signs are positive.

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