VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- So much for the archetype of the quiet and reserved Canadian. On the eve of the Vancouver Games, which will see 5,500 athletes from 82 countries compete for 258 medals, this city is overflowing with boosterism, positivism and optimism. Its rainy streets are filled with flapping Maple Leafs as well as a flapping Canadian media crowing about Team Canada's chances for medal success.
(Much of that enthuisasm was dampened Friday when word came down of the sad and tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili.)
Closer to home, Team USA's 216 athletes (123 men, 93 women) should find success in alpine, bobsled, Nordic combined, snowboarding and speedskating.
With the competition beginning in full Saturday, SI.com's Olympic experts in Vancouver offer a primer on the burning questions, brightest stars and must-see events at the Games:
1. How will American skiing star Lindsey Vonn's injury affect her medal chances? Says SI's Tim Layden: "Vonn has a shin bruise. Skiers control their speed and carve their turns by applying pressure to the tops of their ski boots with their shins. So it's a pretty significant injury. However, as with any soft-tissue injury, time is a great healer, and Vonn seems to be improving daily. She's been blessed by the bad weather in Vancouver, and won't have to ski until Wednesday."
2. Will Apolo Ohno become the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian? Says SI's Brian Cazeneuve: "Ohno has five Olympic medals -- two golds, a silver and two bronzes -- from Salt Lake and Turin. If he finds the podium twice in Vancouver, he would surpass Bonnie Blair for the most Winter Olympic medals ever by a U.S. athlete. Even with the trappings of off-ice stardom, including a victory on Dancing with the Stars in 2007, Ohno seems more determined than ever to regain his place atop the sport.
"He won the overall title at the 2008 World Championships in Gangneung, Korea, and has been among the top finishers on the international circuit this season. He's noticeably leaner, and his technique is more finesse and less power than in the past. Though Ohno won Olympic gold in the 500 in Italy, his improved stamina will give him a good chance to get back on the podium Saturday in the 1,500. With chances to medal in any of three individual races and a relay, Ohno is on the short track to make history."
3. How important is the men's Olympic hockey tournament to Canada? Says SI's Michael Farber: "Hate to answer a question with a question, but how important is mother's milk? Not to throw the baby out with the bathwater (to continue this tortured analogy), but most Canadians would chuck out all the lugers and sliders and skiers if it meant keeping the (men's) Olympic hockey tournament.
"A recent Decima-Harris poll revealed that given the choice of leading the Vancouver medal table or winning the men's hockey gold, Canadians predictably preferred the three periods of glory on Feb. 28. In an interview with SI last November, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he feared the men's hockey tournament would overshadow the rest of the events, and how Canada fared in hockey would color the way his countrymen viewed the entire Olympics."
4. Does America have any medal hopes in figure skating? Says SI's E.M. Swift: "Let's start with the good news: The U.S. is loaded in ice dancing. American champions Meryl Davis, 23, and Charlie White, 22, who've skated together since they were 10, are favored to win gold on the basis of an undefeated Grand Prix season. They are sensational. But they'll be challenged by fellow Americans Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, who won the silver medal four years ago and are the most decorated U.S. ice dancing team ever.
"Both U.S. duos will have to be perfect to get past the Canadian champions, Tessa Virtue and Scott Muir, who train in Detroit with Davis and White; and 2009 World Champions Oksana Domnina and Max Shabalin from Russia. I look for a gold-bronze U.S. finish.
"The U.S. men are deep but full of question marks. The 2009 World Champion, Evan Lysacek, has struggled all season with his quadruple jump. U.S. champ Jeremy Abbott, near-perfect at last month's Nationals, finished 11th in the last two World Championships, a victim of nerves. And Johnny Weir, third in the World Championships as recently as 2008, has neither the quad nor, apparently, the head for high-pressure Olympic competition. I look for one medal between the three of them, probably bronze.
"The pairs? No chance. The women? Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu have an outside shot at a bronze -- very outside. If neither medal, it will be the first Olympics since 1964 (three years after a plane crash killed every member of the U.S. figure skating team traveling to the world championships) that the American women come away empty-handed."
5. Who could be a breakout star in skiing other than Vonn? Says Layden: "The logical guess would be 23-year-old Swiss star Carlo Janka, who has been the hottest new face on the World Cup circuit this season. However, there's also a chance it could be Janka's 35-year-old Swiss teammate, Didier Cuche, who has been the best racer in the world all season. Cuche has been an elite racer for a decade and a half but has never won an Olympic gold medal. Of course, with wildly variable weather conditions, almost anyone could deliver a shocking victory."
6. How many medals will Canada win? Says Farber: "To borrow from Alan Greenspan, former Fed chairman and a mean bobsled pilot, there has been irrational exuberance about Canada's chances. La Presse, a French-language Montreal newspaper, predicted 41 medals. The Vancouver Sun came in at 39. SI picked 30, which, if you gave Canadian Olympic Committee CEO Chris Rudge a shot of truth serum, might be his number. Another savvy Olympic watcher, J.D. Miller, a Montreal businessman who started the B2ten foundation to help fund some athletes, suggests 28 to 31 is the neighborhood."
7. Will NBC see a repeat of the epic television ratings of Beijing? Only if Michael Phelps shows up to ski. NBC averaged a 16.2 national rating and 27.7 million viewers for its 17 prime-time telecasts from Beijing, the best for a non-U.S. Summer Games since the 1992 Barcelona Games. The Winter Olympics always draw fewer American eyeballs than the Summer Games, and with no American women likely to be a factor in figure skating, NBC needs someone to emerge early to capture viewers.
Vonn has been the network's marketing darling heading into the Games, and if she fails to medal early it would be a huge disappointment for the network. (While a number of the alpine events will be tape delayed; NBC plans to carry figure skating, speed skating, short-track skating, snowboarding and freestyle skiing live in prime time). The Hollywood Reporter's Paul Gough reported two weeks ago that NBC is guaranteeing Madison Avenue an average prime-time household rating of 14 for the 16 nights. That seems optimistic. Plus, there's this bit of bad news for NBC: Fox will air original episodes of American Idol on four nights during the Games.
8. How will the weather affect the Games? Says SI's David Epstein: "Right now storm systems that often break up offshore are making it inland and hanging over Vancouver. When the current storm system leaves, at least two cousins are in the queue waiting to make landfall, so Vancouver and Whistler are going to look a lot like a cloud forest for a few days. The Alpine skiing schedule will very likely be shuffled due to poor visibility.
"Some Canadian athletes have said they don't mind the canceled practices because they already know the course, but it's a bummer for all the visitors -- except perhaps for Vonn, who might grab some extra recovery time like Austrian ski legend Hermann Maier did in Nagano. As for the rest of the month, the strongest El Niño in a decade has brought warm water off the coast, which is infusing the air with moisture. That pushes the freezing point of the air upward. The freezing point was at 1700 meters Thursday, higher than any of the event venues, causing fog and meaning precipitation will be mostly in the form of rain, not snow.
"Luckily, Whistler has a decent base of snow, so when the fog clears, the events there will be good to go. As for skiing events in Cypress, at low altitude near Vancouver, slushy conditions might make for slow moguls runs, and organizers are just going to have to keep the dump trucks and helicopters at the ready."
9. Will Lindsey Jacobellis redeem herself in the snowboardcross? Says SI's Austin Murphy: "If she's in the lead in the final, she's not going to garnish the last couple hundred yards with a method grab like she did in Turin. The world has closed on her in the last four years, but she's still the best. Still, the sport is total chaos and any rider can be taken out through no fault of her own. It really is roller derby. Athletes in this sport are more subject to vagaries and bad fortune through not fault of their own."
10. Can anyone crash the U.S.-Canada party in women's hockey? Says SI's Sarah Kwak: "In short, no. At this point, women's hockey is defined by the U.S.-Canada rivalry. The U.S. and Canada have met in two of the three Olympic gold medal games -- the Americans lost in a shootout stunner to Sweden in a semifinal in Turin in 2006 -- and countless times in between. That much familiarity had bred bad blood.
"As women's hockey goes, these Games are typically as physical as the sport gets, and U.S.-Canada can escalate into a nasty scrum, as it did last October when a friendly got decidedly unfriendly in the closing seconds of a 3-1 U.S. loss. When these two play each other, there's just a little extra oomph, and players have said referees tend to be slightly more lenient on calls just to keep the pace up."
11. Why should you care about Nordic combined? Says Epstein: "Because you like learning new things, and Nordic combined is new to you. And this is the best moment in history for American fans to develop a sudden interest in this mix of ski-jumping and cross country skiing.
"The current crop of U.S. athletes pulled the team up by its spandex from irrelevance to team-to-beat. The U.S. busted out at 2009 Worlds, with Bill Demong and five-time Olympian Todd Lodwick combining to win all three of the individual events. The U.S. might have swept with a relay win too if Demong hadn't misplaced his competition bib, disqualifying him from the ski-jump. Vancouver is a chance to see whether the U.S. is the new world power in Nordic combined, or whether there was just something in the Americans' apple juice in '09."
12. Who will light the Olympic cauldron? Says Farber: "There are two superb candidates, one obvious and another who might need subtitles. Start with the familiar. Wayne Gretzky played in the 1998 Olympics, when Canada finished fourth in hockey. He was the general manager of Team Canada when it ended a 50-year gold medal drought in Salt Lake City. (He also presided over the seventh place disaster in Turin.) Gretzky might be most famous for his NHL connection, but having watched Team Canada get off the train in Nagano and seen locals fall in step behind hockey's Pied Piper, I will always consider the Olympics a grand part of his legacy.
"The other possibility is someone people wouldn't know -- on sight, anyway. Betty Fox is the mother of Terry Fox, who in 1980 was running across Canada from east to west to raise money for cancer research when the cancer that had necessitated the amputation of his leg wound up spreading to his lungs. If his mother completes the journey for her noble son two decades after his death, this 'wow' moment would not be lost on Canadians -- or on anyone around the globe who has participated in a Terry Fox run."
13. Which nation will top the medal count? Germany. SI predicts the Germans at 35 total medals, followed by Canada (30), the U.S. (27), and Norway and Austria (22 each). For the U.S. to finish on top, someone unexpected will have to emerge as a multiple medal winner, be it skier Bode Miller or speedskaters Trevor Marsicano (a former world champion) or J.R. Celski. Vonn's injury -- especially if it's severe -- will obviously affect the medal haul for the U.S.
14. What will be the first scandal? Says Epstein: "Chances are we'll see the first-ever positive test for CERA during an Olympics. CERA is a new and improved form of EPO (which boosts the blood's capacity to carry oxygen) that has only been available since 2008. Several samples from the Beijing Games came back positive for CERA, but those tests were conducted after the Olympics were finished, diluting the drama of a positive test.
"Given the number of endurance events in the Winter Games -- cross country skiing, Nordic combined, biathlon, distance events in speed skating -- there are plenty of athletes in Vancouver and Whistler who would stand to benefit from extra red blood cells. The first positive tests for CERA came in the 2008 Tour de France, only months after the drug became available, so clearly world class athletes did not hesitate to take it for a spin. If that first in-Olympics positive for CERA comes from someone who performed well, it would obviously be a big deal."
15. Is this the last Olympics for NHL players? Says Farber: "If Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz has his way, definitely. Wirtz, like many owners of the 30 NHL teams, sees no utility in having a two-week break that robs the season of its momentum -- such as it is -- for no tangible benefits. Complicating the matter is the site of the 2014 Games: Sochi, Russia. Forget the anticipated poor ratings for a European Games. The NHL and Russia, with its rival KHL, are not exactly best friends at the moment.
"Still, the issue must be collectively bargained, and the players are gung-ho for the Olympics. Indeed, Alex Ovechkin and other NHL Russian players have said they will be in Sochi in any case. The guess is NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who once extended the CBA to ensure league participation, will use the Olympics as a bargaining chip in negotiations, and the players will be back. Some of the best Olympic hockey moments came before the league joined the party in Nagano -- the Miracle on Ice, Peter Forsberg's shootout goal for Sweden in 1994 -- but the hockey world will mourn if the NHL bails and the IOC has to turn back the clock."
16. What's the best under-the-radar story for an American athlete? Says SI's S.L. Price: "It's all lining up in Vancouver for the ultimate contrarian: The world has long moved on from Bode Miller, all but dismissed him as one of the great American underachievers. And no wonder. The Alpine genius bombed out at Turin four years ago and hardly seemed to care; he hated playing face-man for the U.S. team and seemed delighted to blow off skiing's biggest stage and get back to partying.
"Now? No one expects a thing; all the attention has shifted to Vonn. Miller has reached Vancouver on his own quirky terms, and it would make perfect Bode-ian sense for him to suddenly lock in, unleash a few astonishing runs, win a gold medal -- and then, beer in hand, tell our oh-so-dismissive world to kiss his frosty ass."
Sidney Crosby, Canada, Men's Hockey
Speedskater Christine Nesbitt might be Canada's golden girl, but the biggest athlete at these Games from a home-team perspective is Crosby. He's not the captain, but he is the fulcrum. If he remains Sid the Kid -- probably a fatuous conceit, considering that he's 22 -- he is Canada's Child.
Shani Davis, U.S., Speedskating
No skater since Eric Heiden has commanded the 1,000 and 1,500 meters the way Davis does now, and no American Olympian has ever stood more apart from his sport's establishment and conventions. Davis has chosen not to join USA to skate the team pursuit in Vancouver, but he will skate four individual events at distances ranging from 500 to 5,000. SI predicts Davis will win the 1,000 and 1,500.
Lindsey Vonn, U.S., Alpine Skiing
No American athlete comes in with more buzz than the 25-year-old skier, an SI cover girl and the star of NBC's pre-Olympic marketing campaign. Vonn won the women's overall World Cup title the last two seasons and finished sixth in Turin. Her injury is the one to watch this week.
Shaun White, U.S., Snowboarding
The reigning Turin gold medalist said he had "the run of my life" last month -- a five-hit string of soaring acrobatics including consecutive double corks, diagonal flips and the unveiling of the double McTwist 1260. The last, a double-forward-flipping spin, was proclaimed by the 23-year-old rider "the best trick I've ever done." (The move is also the scariest, most demanding and hardest to master of any he has ever tackled.) "I don't think I've crashed as much in the last couple years as I have this season learning it," White told SI. "I was talking about it in interviews, and I was going to feel like a bit of a sissy if I didn't stick it."
Kim Yu-na, South Korea, Figure Skating
The 19-year-old is the reigning world champion and holds the record scores for both the short program and free skating. Dubbed by the South Korean media as the Figure Queen for her artistry, Kim moved to Toronto in 2006 for training and is coached by 1984 and '88 Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser. She'll be the heavy favorite and has support in Canada. Don't miss her. The Figure Queen
1. Women's Snowboardcross, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 1 p.m.
Lindsey Jacobellis hot-dogged her way down to a silver in Turin. Now comes her chance at gold again versus Maelle Ricer and Helene Olafesen of Norway.
2. Women's Downhill, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2 p.m.
The signature Alpine race -- Vonn is a heavy favorite --and the ones most casual fans can best relate to. Vonn has won 17 World Cup titles in the downhill.
3. Men's Halfpipe Wednesday, Feb. 17, 4:05 p.m.
On a halfpipe with walls 22 feet high -- four feet higher than Turin -- Americans Shaun White, Scotty Lago and Louie Vito are expected to put on a show. "White is between a heavy and prohibitive favorite," says SI's Austin Murphy. "The X-Factor in the halfpipe will be the elements. There will be water in the flat-bottom, and these people who normally nick the pipe up a little bit will be taking two-inch gouges out of it. But my experience with him is Shaun White handles that sort of adversity better than anyone."
4. Men's Skicross, Feb. 21, 12:15 p.m.; Women Skicross, Feb. 23 1:30 p.m.
In this sport, making its Olympic debut, four skiers race in a pack at up to 65 mph down a course filled with turns, jumps and moguls. The U.S. men's hopefuls are Daron Rahlves and Casey Puckett.
5. Men's Hockey gold medal game, Feb. 28, 3:15 p.m.
If Canada is in the final, the country will come to a halt. No team will have more pressure to win in the history of modern sport.
1. Gillian Cooke, Great Britain, Bobsled
A YouTube sensation because she split her pants just before the start of a run at the Worlds in January, Cooke and teammate Nicola Minichiello, the reigning world champions, could deliver Great Britain a gold medal in this event. Plus, Cooke has a great sense of humor about the wardrobe malfunction: "At the time I was mortified," she told The Sunday Times. "But it's raised the profile of the sport right before the Olympics. It was funny, a giggle, but now we're back to focusing on our ultimate aim." The pair will go for Olympic gold in Whistler on Feb. 23 and 24
Steven Holcomb, U.S., Bobsled
The eagle-eyed driver might have gone blind if not for a radical surgery he underwent two years ago to combat his eye disease. Now the self-proclaimed computer nerd could drive his way to Everyman heroism.
Wang Meng, China, Short-track Speedskating
She likes fast cars as much as fast skating, and earlier this season she was so far ahead in a relay race that she straightened up and hot-dogged her way across the line to win a race in a photo finish. She has openly said she thinks she can win gold medals in all four events.
Petter Northug Jr., Norway, Cross Country
The colorful bad boy of an oft-colorless sport is likely to skate and trash talk his way to several Olympic medals.
Gregor Schlierenzauer, Austria, Ski Jumping
The 19-year-old will shoulder high expectations for his Olympic debut. He's coming off a 2008-09 breakthrough campaign, with the World Cup title and two medals in the World Championships, among his many successes. There is reason to believe he could continue his domination of the sport in Vancouver: Two of his 2009 Cup wins came at Whistler, the Olympic venue.
217 -- Total medals won by U.S. in Winter Olympics competition
129 -- U.S. team members who are competing in their first Olympics
31 -- U.S. team members who have medaled in previous Games
24 -- Difference in age between the oldest U.S. Olympians (curlers Tracey Sachtjen and John Benton, both 40) and the youngest (figure skaters CaydeeDenney and Mirai Nagasu, both 16)
23 -- Members of the U.S. Olympic team who have children (17 dads, six moms)
11 -- Gold medals predicted for U.S. athletes by CanWest news service; it forecast 12 for Team Canada
6 -- U.S. athletes who are active or formerly served in the military
0 -- Days until the Opening Ceremonies