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Vancouver speedskating preview

shani-davis.jpg's writers will preview each event from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Here's Alexander Wolff's look ahead to speedskating.

Don't expect any world records at the Richmond Olympic Oval. "It's too close to the ocean, with too much air to push through," says Canada's Jamie Gregg, son of former Edmonton Oiler Randy Gregg and a medal contender in the 500 meters. But it will be an unusually wide-open fortnight, with skaters from beyond the usual blade-running powers of the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands posing a threat at one distance or another -- from the Czech Republic's Martina Sablikova, the European all-around champion and favorite in the women's 3,000; to a raft of Korean and Japanese men who could dominate the 500.

If you're a Yank, for no reason more than this: Since the event's introduction in 1924, speedskating has delivered more gold medals to the U.S. than all other winter sports combined. If you're Dutch, because the men's distances -- the 5,000 and 10,000 meters -- are likely to be predominantly orange. And if you're neither, because of the comic wild card of Stephen Colbert, who'll be haunting the oval. The minister of truthiness will add two titles to his portfolio: ombudsman of the venue, courtesy his Canadian hosts; and assistant team psychologist, thanks to U.S. Speedskating, whose coffers Colbert Nation has filled to an excess of $300,000.

Sven Kramer, Netherlands. Canadian schoolgirls may mistake him for Sidney Crosby, but he's a clear favorite to grab gold for the Dutch in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. It's basically Kramer vs. Kramer: His world record in the 10K of 12:50.96 looks untouchable and he hasn't lost a 5,000 since 2007. But he has never won Olympic gold, and he'll have to cope with the pressure of his skate-crazy compatriots to do so.

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Canadian women. The trio of Christine Nesbitt, Kristina Groves and BrittanySchussler set a world record in the team pursuit in December, and Nesbitt will be the favorite for individual golds in the 1,000 and 1,500. Figure on the Canuckettes to continue the tradition of host nations leveraging home-ice advantage, as did Eric Heiden in Lake Placid, Johann Olav Koss in Lillehammer and Enrico Fabris in Turin.

The men in the 500 meters. Anyone could grab gold here -- through the first six runnings of this event on the fall World Cup circuit, six different skaters wound up winning, including Tucker Fredricks of the U.S. But South Korea's Lee Kyu-Hyeok gets the slightest of edges for showing the best recent form.

Yet again, Shani Davis won't skate the team pursuit, and he's unlikely to win individual golds beyond his specialties, the 1,000 and 1,500. But he's clearly the best male sprinter in the world right now, a guy who usually leaves even archrival Chad Hedrick in his ice shavings. Beyond those two, Fredricks is a medal threat in the 500. But Trevor Marsicano hasn't shown medal-worthy form after briefly looking like a guy ready to challenge Davis. And any medal from the American women would be a surprise.

Compared to their frostiness in Turin, Davis vs. Hedrick seems like a love-in now. Part of that is the result of Hedrick's getting married, embracing Christ and becoming a dad; part is a matter of Davis simply seizing the alpha mantle and wearing it gracefully. In the run-up to these Games, they've said all the right things about each other and held hands when they've shared podiums; Hedrick bit his tongue when Davis chose to give the team pursuit a miss, and briefly gave up his spot in the 10,000 when it looked like Davis intended to skate it. But the rivalry remains: Hedrick handed Davis his only middle-distance defeat all World Cup season, nipping him for the gold in a 1,500 by six-hundredths of a second in December.

Colbert Nation's sponsorship of the U.S. team may seem like an innovation in the realm of Olympic sponsorship, but it's not the first instance of pop culture marrying itself to American speedskating. For the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo, power-ballad rock group REO Speedwagon bankrolled Erik Henriksen, a skater from the band's hometown of Champaign, Ill.

Men's 5,000 meters (Feb. 13)Women's 3,000 meters (Feb. 14)Men's 500 meters (Feb. 15)Women's 500 meters (Feb. 16)Men's 1,000 meters (Feb. 17)Women's 1,000 meters (Feb. 18)Men's 1,500 meters (Feb. 20)Women's 1,500 meters (Feb. 21)Men's 10,000 meters (Feb. 23)Women's 5,000 meters (Feb. 24)Men's and Women's team pursuit (Feb. 27)