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Daily Briefing, Feb. 15

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Finally, we ski. The men's downhill event, where helmeted racers tear down the side of a mountain in search of Alpine immortality, is scheduled to begin at Whistler Creekside today at 1:30 p.m. (The caveat, as always, is weather permitting.) Medals will also be awarded in men's and women's cross country, women's luge, and men's speedskating.

(All times Eastern)

• The Chinese pair of Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, who came out of retirement last year for one last shot at Olympic glory, pulled off a bravura performance in the short program. Their score of 76.66 points set a record for the most points scored and gave them a slender .70-point lead over two-time world champions AlionaSavchenko and Robin Szolkowy heading into the free skate event (8 p.m.) Russians Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov stood third. Keep in mind that a Soviet or Russian pairs team has won or shared every Olympic pairs title since 1964, a string that stretches back 12 gold medals. The closest American team, Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, are a distant 10th. Says SI's E.M. Swift: "If Shen and Zhao are able to maintain their slim lead over Savchenko and Szolkowy in tomorrow's free skate, they will not only break the Russian stranglehold on the Olympic pairs competition, but they will become the first Chinese skaters to win an Olympic gold medal in any discipline.

• Finally, we get the men's downhill (1:30 p.m.), which offers a ton of European stars led by Switzerland's Carlo Janka, who leaped to the top of the World Cup ladder when he won all three races (super combined, downhill and giant slalom) at Beaver Creek, Colo., in December. The 23-year-old followed that up in his home country by winning the legendary Lauberhorn downhill in Wengen on Jan. 16. Didier Cuche is at the other end of the Swiss timeline. The 36-year-old is built like a beer keg and stokes World Cup crowds in the finish corral when he snaps his first ski off and flips it into the air before snatching it with a gloved hand. Cuche is SI's pick for gold with Janka getting bronze. Canada's Manuel Osborne-Paradis is SI's pick for silver. American Marco Sullivan is a deep threat but the X-Factor is American Bode Miller, who famously failed to win in '06, but flaunting his late-night partying. Says SI's Tim Layden: "Miller is inarguably one of the most talented racers of all-time and comes to Whistler as a 32-year-old man with a young daughter and one last chance to add to the two silver medals he won eight years ago in Salt Lake, when he was far less jaded."

• Sure, silver's great, but Norway's Marit Bjoergen is getting tired of second place finishes at the Olympics. Bjoergen won a silver in the 4x5 cross country relay in 2002 and silver in the women's cross-country 10K at Turin. The 29-year-old Norwegian is SI's pick for gold in today's 10K race (1 p.m.), though if she wins another silver today, she will become the eighth cross-country skier to win at least three silver medals without ever winning gold in a women's event. Sweden's Charlotte Kalla (SI's pick for silver) can break a long drought: A Swedish woman last won an individual gold in cross-country skiing at the 1968 Olympics. Russia's Irina Khazova, SI's pick for bronze, was suspended for two years because of doping, then resumed her career in 2009. Poland's Justyna Kowalczyk has won seven World Cup events this season and is considered the best overall cross-country skier in the world, but longer distances are her specialty. The U.S. athletes in the event are Morgan Arritola, Holly Brooks, Caitlin Compton and Liz Stephen.

• With its four-at-a-time setup, barreling down a steep mountain, the snowboard cross (1:30 p.m. start; 5:53 p.m. final) is a thrilling and dangerous affair. France's Pierre Vaultier -- SI's pick for gold -- has been best this season, winning four of five World Cup races. Both Nate Holland, who has won the X-Games snowboardcross competition for five consecutive years and is third in the World Cup standings, and Seth Wescott, who won this event in Turin and finished second to Holland, 21, at the latest X-Games, are medal contenders for the U.S. Another French rider to keep an eye on is Xavier Delerue, 30, who has won three World Cup Championships since '03. If Wescott, 32, wins, expect some happy patrons in Maine tonight: He co-owns a barbeque restaurant called The Rack near the Sugarloaf ski area.

• No Finn has won a men's cross-country 15K race (3:30 p.m.) since 1964 but SI says Matti Heikkinen will end the drought today. Vincent Vittoz of France and Norway's Petter Northug Jr. will also be in the hunt. Other contenders include Switzerland's Dario Cologna and Lukas Bauer of the Czech Republic. Kris Freeman and James Southam are the top Americans in the event.

• After setting a Winter Olympics record with its 18-0 rout of Slovenia in its opening game, Canada meets Switzerland (5:30 p.m.) for the first time in women's hockey.

• Korea's Lee Kyou-Hyuk has a long Olympic history (this is his fifth Olympics) but no medals to show for it. The 500 long-track speedskating (6:30 start; 8:28 p.m. final race.) could be his time. Lee is SI's pick to win the 500 followed by fellow Korean Lee Kang-Seok. The pair are ranked 1-2 in the world. If either skater wins, it will be the first gold medal for Korea in a sport other short track. Canada's Jeremy Wotherspoon, a heartbreak kid who won a silver in Nagano but has suffered awful luck at the Olympics ever since, will be the home favorite. Japan's Keiichiro Nagashima and Joji Kato are also contenders. The best American prospect is Tucker Fredericks, a 500-meter specialist and the American record holder. Shani Davis, Nick Pearson and Mitch Whitmore will also skate for the U.S.

• Germany swept the women's luge podium at Salt Lake and Turin, and could do it again with Tatjana Huefner, Natalie Geisenberger and Anke Wischnewski. Huefner is SI's pick for gold. She won the overall World Cup title in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and has won five World Cup races this season. Geisenberger (SI's choice for silver) beat Huefner in three World Cup events this season. At 32, Wischnewski is making her Games debut. She was the only woman to finish second in a World Cup race this season other than Huefner and Geisenberger. American Erin Hamlin is a legitimate medal favorite and SI's pick for bronze. She won gold at the 2009 world championships in Lake Placid, the first woman to defeat the Germans in 99 straight international competitions and the first American to win a world title in women's luge. Hamlin finished 12th in Turin. Runs 1 and 2 come today (5 p.m.) at Whistler Sliding Centre. The finals are Tuesday at 4.

• Poor Slovakia now holds the honor of suffering the biggest blowout in women's hockey. Today's game (10 p.m.) against Sweden will be much of the same.

(Valentine Day's edition)

• "Maybe we'll go to a nice restaurant and I'll flash my athlete's pass and get a good table." -- American luger Chris Mazdzer on how he'd spend Valentine's Day with his girlfriend.

• "Just a phone message. No flowers. She knows I am busy and she wants a medal." -- Finnish defenseman Janne Niskala, speaking about his wife back home.

• "I will probably call her. I sent her some gifts early. She won't be coming here. I won't have the time to spend with her. I'm lucky to have such a good girlfriend. I have priorities and obligations, but she's with me in spirit." -- U.S. speedskater Shani Davis, on his what he'd be doing for his girlfriend on Valentine's Day.

69 -- Percent of the Canadian population (33 million people) tuned into some part of the Opening Ceremonies. An average of 13.3 million Canadians tuned into every moment of the festivities, an increase of 29 percent over the previous record (CBC's coverage of the 2002 Salt Lake City gold medal games)

20 -- Vehicles in Vice President Joe Biden's motorcade in Vancouver, including black SUV's, limousines, vans and an ambulance.

5 -- Olympic medals won by Italian luger Armin Zoeggeler, whose bronze Sunday gave him a fifth successive medal in the event. He joins German luger Georg Hackl and German biathlete Rico Gross as the only athletes to win five consecutive medals at a Winter Games.

• 1. A Sport Unlike Any Other, Where Anything Can Happen (by Roy MacGregor, Globe and Mail): Basically, don't try short-track at home without the supervision of a parent.

• 2. Kramer Brings New Meaning To Going Dutch (by Jerry Brewer, Seattle Times): Meet the new King of Holland

• 3. Luger Who Died Was Terrified of Track (by Samantha Shields, Wall Street Journal.com): David Kumaritashvili, father of fallen luger, speaks to the Journal.

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