SOCHI -- At their essence, the Olympics is a TV show, a green screen on which each country is free to project its interests and its aspirations. So wrote SI.com’s Michael Farber on the eve of the Sochi Games, where the pre-competition storylines have centered rightfully on security fears, given the proximity to geopolitical struggles, as well the Mt. Rushmore-sized budget ($50 billion and rising) to stage Mr. Putin’s party.
The readiness of the venues (they look good, at least), Russia’s gay propaganda laws, and the stray dogs roaming around Sochi and have also drawn the interest of the global press. But once the flame is lit, Farber writes, Olympic smoke figures to get in the eyes of the world. The focus becomes the athletes, and the magic they bring on whatever NBC screen (they paid $775 million to air them) you choose to watch. The first full day of competition begins Saturday with gold medals awarded in biathlon, cross country, freestyle skiing (women’s moguls), snowboarding (men’s slopestyle) and speed skating (men’s long track).
What to watch (all times are Eastern Standard Time)
• MEN'S SNOWBOARDING SLOPESTYLE: Slopestyle hands out its first-ever Olympic medals with Canada looking very strong for podium honors. Mark McMorris was the heavy pre-games favorite but failed to earn an automatic spot in the finals because of low scores Thursday. He’ll now compete in the semifinals, which start at 12:30 a.m. (The finals start at 3:45 a.m). Fellow Canadians Sebastien Toutant and Max Parrot, who won slopestyle boarding at Winter X-Games with back-to-back triple-cork jumps, qualified straight for the finals with strong performances. (Parrot had the best score of the 29 athletes who took part in the opening competition.) U.S. snowboarding star Shaun White was originally scheduled to compete here but pulled out of the competition on Wednesday.
• WOMEN'S CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING: The top contenders for the women's 15 km cross-country skiathlon (which consists of 7.5 km of classical cross-country skiing and 7.5 km of freestyle skiing) are Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk, Finland’s Anne Kyllönen and Norway’s Kristin Stormer Steira. Kowalczyk won three medals in Vancouver (including a gold in the 30 km classical) and a bronze in Turin in this event. The race starts at 5 a.m. and lasts a little over an hour.
• MEN'S LONG-TRACK SPEED SKATING: Long-track Holland’s Sven Kramer is the world-record holder and defending Olympic champion in the long-track 5000 meters (6:30 a.m. start). It’d be a major upset if he did not take gold at Adler Arena. Teammate Jorrit Bergsma and Lee Seung-hoon of South Korea will be chasing him. Kramer looks to join Sweden’s Tomas Gustafson (1984 and 1988) as the only speed skaters to win back-to-back gold medals in the 5000.
• WOMEN'S MOGULS: Hannah Kearney could win the first gold medal of the Games for the U.S. as she's the big favorite in the women’s moguls. Four years ago Kearney upset the home-country favorite, Jenn Heil, to win gold in Vancouver. This time, Kearney will have to hold off a sister act from Canada -- Maxime Dufour-Lapointe, Justine Dufour-Lapointe and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe -- for the prize. Kearney and U.S. teammate Eliza Outtrim placed in the top 10 in the first qualification run Thursday evening at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. Today’s qualification round begins at 9 a.m., with the finals set for 1 p.m. Kearney has won 21 out of 29 moguls competitions in the World Cup and World Championships combined since Vancouver.
• WOMEN'S ICE HOCKEY: Women’s hockey gets underway with the co-favorites in action today: The U.S. meets Finland at 3 a.m. while Canada plays Switzerland at 8 a.m. The Fins have one of the world’s best goaltenders in 24-year-old Noora Raty, who started for her country at 15 in Turin and led the Fins to a bronze medal four years ago in Vancouver. Raty played college hockey at the University of Minnesota and the Golden Gophers won the last 49 games of her career. She made 53 saves against the U.S. in a 3-1 win for Finland at last year’s Four Nations Cup.
• MEN'S LUGE: The men’s singles luge holds its first two runs (starts at 9:30 a.m.) with Germany’s Felix Loch looking to repeat his gold medal from Vancouver (he was the sport’s youngest gold medalist at 20). The 24-year-old Loch is a four-time world singles champion and one of the biggest favorites in Sochi. Those chasing him at the Sliding Center will be 40-year-old Armin Zoggeler of Italy and Germany’s David Moller. Zoggeler could become the first athlete to win six medals in an individual event.
• BIATHLON: France’s Martin Fourcade is SI’s pick to win the 10 km biathlon (9:30 a.m. start), but all eyes will be on 40-year-old Norwegian legend Ole Einar Bjoerndalen who is competing in his sixth Olympic Games and has won 11 overall medals (six golds, four silvers, one bronze) during his gilded career. Bjoerndalen needs one medal to tie Norwegian cross-country skiing legend Bjoern Dæhlie as the most decorated Winter Olympian. Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen is also a medal contender. The U.S’s best threat is Tim Burke.
• FIGURE SKATING: The Iceberg Skating Palace will be busy today with the team ice dance program short program, the team ladies short program and team pairs free skate. Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the reigning world champions, will perform in dance, and Ashley Wagner has been entered for the U.S. for the ladies short. (The team event short dance is set for 9:30 a.m., followed by the team event ladies short program at 11:10 a.m. The team event pairs free skate is at 1:05 p.m.) Favorites Russia and Canada stand first and second after Thursday’s event while the U.S. team, hampered by a weak performance by Jeremy Abbott, stands in a three-way tie for fifth. After the short programs, the top five teams advance to a final round Sunday in which their designated entries will skate long programs. Each team may make two changes in its lineup between the short and long programs.
• MEN'S SKI JUMPING: The men’s normal hill ski jumping begins qualification (11:30 a.m.) with Norway’s Anders Bardel and Slovenia’s Peter Previc as the favorites. Switzerland’s Simon Ammann, the flagbearer for his country, is competing in his fifth Olympics. The competition for gold comes Sunday.
Tweet of the day
By the numbers
40,518 -- Amount (in dollars) the Dutch Olympic Committee will pay athletes for a gold medal in Sochi.
468 -- Athletes who will take part in Olympic ice hockey at the Sochi 2014 Games, the most for any sport.
1 -- New York Daily News Sochi-related front page you should click on.
Around the web
Here are five Olympic stories you’ll be talking about today:
- An Olympics in the Shadow of a War Zone (By Steven Lee Myers, The New York Times) -- For the first time in history, the Olympics are being held on the edge of a war zone.
- No More Mr. Nice Guy (By Michael Weiss, Foreign Policy) -- The sad end of Ambassador Michael McFaul's troubled tenure in Moscow.
- Sochi’s Youngest And Oldest and How They Rank Alltime (By Bill Mallon, Olympstats) -- The youngest competitor in Sochi is German ski jumper Gianina Ernst, who will be 15 years and 41 days old when she competes on Feb. 10.
- Before Putin and the Olympics, Sochi was scary (By Ken Kalfus, Wall Street Journal) -- If you think Sochi is bad-ass now, read this.
- The 1000 condoms of Sochi (By Greg Wyshynski, Yahoo! Sports) -- The new Olympics motto: Faster, higher, safer.