Superstars of snow and ice ready to thrill in Sochi

There are plenty of stars to watch at the Winter Olympics which begin on February 6.
Nanjing Night Net

Shaun White (US): Snowboard

If the X-Games is viewed as the great threat to the Winter Olympics by the International Olympic Committee, then 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 S halfpipe at the Turin Games in 2006.

Gone are the long red locks that earned him the nickname, ”the Flying Tomato”. Gone is the goofy teen who asked figure skating star Sasha Cohen out on date on American TV. Still present though is the hunger for success. White is not just a two-time Olympic snowboard champion. He is a businessman with estimated earnings of $20 million a year, a champion skateboarder and burgeoning rock star with his band Bad Things.

No expense is spared in his quest. Before the Vancouver Olympics, his sponsor Red Bull built White his own private halfpipe in Colorado that could only be accessed by helicopter. The same has been done in the lead-up to Sochi, this time, at Perisher in Australia’s Snowy Mountains.

Viktor Ahn (Russia): Speed skating

It’s a match made in heaven. Russia has never won a short-track speed skating medal, Ahn Hyun-Soo has 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 miraculous gold medal in the 1000 metres. Four years later in Turin he dominated for South Korea, with four medals.

Two years ago, embittered by his omission from the Vancouver Games, the Seoul-born champion changed his first name to Viktor and declared his allegiance to Russia. For Ahn, adopting the name Viktor was more than just a case of Russification, it was a statement of intent.

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

Mikaela Shiffrin (US): Alpine skiing

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

Not that slalom specialist Shiffrin is feeling the pressure. She was competing on the World Cup circuit when she was 15 and by 17 was a world champion. Three weeks ago she was named alongside NFL quarterback Peyton Manning as Colorado’s athlete of the year.

Her domination of the slalom circuit has earned her the tag the Mozart of alpine skiing. It’s not that she’s just 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.

Petter Northug (Nor): Cross-country skiing

Cross-country skiing is the Winter Olympics’ most traditional sport and Northug is its least conventional star.

A top cross-country skier has rock star status in Norway, and Northug 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 titles to his name, Northug is more often bad than sore.

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 50-kilometre race. Like Shane Warne, he is also a regular on the poker circuit.

But it’s Northug’s style that sets him apart. The Norwegian is a champagne-class stirrer particularly of cross-border rival Sweden. At the 2011 world championships in Sweden, Northug anchored Norway to a gold-medal performance in the relay but not before mocking the crowd 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”.

But his fellow Norwegians did not mind with more than 100,000 fans gathering in Olso to greet him and his teammates when they returned.

Kim Yu-Na (S Korea): Figure skating

The spotlight shines no brighter at the Winter Olympics than on figure skating and Kim is its brightest star. The Ice Queen from South Korea has never missed a podium place at any championship, 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 women sport stars in the world. 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 soccer World Cup campaign in 2010.

Kim enters Sochi as the reigning world champion and should she succeed in winning gold she will be the first back-to-back ladies’ singles champion since Katerina Witt of East Germany in 1984 and ’88.

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

Felix Loch (Germany): Luge

It was no surprise when 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 a German speaker; even the two Italian winners (Armin Zö¨ggeler and Paul Hildgartner) came from home towns near the Austrian border where Deutsch was more often heard spoken than 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 he 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.

Alex Ovechkin (Russia): Ice hockey

As the best player in the host nation’s most popular team, Alex Ovechkin could well 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 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 play-offs 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 when 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.

Ireen 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 come from speed skating. Like Australia’s passion for the 1500 metres freestyle, it’s the longer events that capture the hearts of the Dutch.

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

Sara Takanashi (Japan): Ski jumping

Ski jumping is one of the most popular sports at the Winter Olympics and has been a feature since the inaugural 1924 Games in Chamonix, France. The concept is very simple – jump as far as possible. 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 amount 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. Competitors receive 60 points for landing on the critical point, with points taken away for every metre the point is missed, and added for every metre the point is exceeded.

Women’s ski jumping is making its long-awaited Olympic debut in Sochi, and despite being only 17 Takanashi is the red hot favourite to claim gold. Takanashi has won seven of the eight World Cup events this season and notched up 760 points in the overall standings, 294 points ahead of her nearest rival, Germany’s Carina Vogt.

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