Winter Olympics: The superstars of Sochi 2014

Shaun White (USA)  Snowboarding
Nanjing Night Net

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

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Comments are closed.