Can Sochi do it?
The decision to award these Olympics to Sochi is gaining controversy by the minute. This is a summer resort on the Black Sea that organizers have tried to convert into a winter sports haven by essentially reinventing a city. Construction overruns have swelled the announced budget to a record $51 billion, though by some estimates, as much as half of that money is unaccounted for and may have disappeared through fraud.
Additionally, there are rising security fears over the city's proximity to ethnic groups that are upset with the Kremlin and have vowed to disrupt the Games. A recent law enacted to curb the lifestyle of LGBT citizens in Russia has worried people that the Olympics will be marred by a public showdown over the law, itself.
How will these Olympics play out? Will the storylines of athletic drama be overshadowed by Sochi's shortcomings?
Which of the new entries to the Sochi program will generate the most buzz? New events this year include new team competitions in figure skating and luge, a mixed relay in biathlon, a ski jumping event for women, a ski halfpipe, a parallel giant slalom for snowboarders and slopestyle events in both skiing and snowboarding.
Of these, the slopestyle and women's ski jumping events have gained the most momentum heading into the season. Women fought a protracted legal battle just to get their sport on the program, and slopestyle events will bring new X Games street cred to an Olympic world that is trending younger and more modern? How will these additions fare?
They can dance all night
The free dance portion of the ice dance competition in Vancouver produced two of the finest programs of this generation. Home-nation favorites Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir prevailed, superbly interpreting a Mahler symphony to become the first couple to win the dance competition in their Olympic debut. Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White took second with a strong showing, and since then, the two teams have stayed at the top of their event. The U.S. took gold at the world championships in 2011 and 2013, when Virtue and Moir won silver, and the Canadians triumphed in 2012, when Davis and White finished second.
The Olympics in Sochi will likely come down to another showdown between the two best dance teams in the world. Who wins this one?
No gold medal would mean more to the host nation than the one for men's ice hockey. Russian hockey was once the standard for sporting preeminence in any Olympic competition. Teams from the old Soviet Union and subsequent iterations -- including the Unified Team in Albertville in 1992 -- won medals at every Olympics from 1952 through 1992, failing to win gold only in 1960 and 1980 when the Games were held in the United States.
Since then, Russian hockey has hit a wall, failing to win titles at five subsequent Olympics and slumping to sixth place in Vancouver, when the Canadians embarrassed the Russians, 7-3, in the quarterfinals. Can this year's team, led by the likes of reigning NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin, overcome challenges from Canada, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and the U.S.?
Hot diggity, Ted Ligety
No alpine skier had a better season last year than U.S. veteran Ted Ligety, who captured three gold medals at the World Championships in Schladming, Austria. Ligety finished first in the giant slalom, which has become his signature race during a career that included 18 World Cup victories in the event before this season and a world title in 2011. He also stunned the field by taking the combined and giant slalom events as well. Ligety won the combined event at the Olympics in Turin in 2006. Now 28, he is older and wiser, but is he prepared to raise his game and his profile to become this year's Jean-Claude Killy and cement his name among skiing legends?
As with the ice dance competition, women's ice hockey figures to be a showdown between two giants from North America. Since the event made its debut at the Olympics in 1988, U.S. and Canadian teams have combined for four gold medals, three silvers and a bronze. Even more impressive, the teams have met in the gold medal games of all 15 world championships ever held, dating to 1990. The Canadians will enter the tournament as the defending Olympic champions, while the U.S. will enter as the defending world champions. Which team will prevail in Sochi? Or could there possibly be a surprise from Russia, Finland, Sweden or Switzerland?
Crossing over barriers
U.S. cross-country skiers have nearly drawn a complete blank at the Winter Olympics. Bill Koch's silver medal in the 30K at the 1976 Games in Innsbruck is still the only medal the U.S. has ever won in Olympic cross-country competition, a remarkable degree of futility since the sport was on the original Olympic program in 1924 and 421 medals have now been divided among 21 teams. Norwegian skiers top the list with a whopping 96 cross-country medals. Now the U.S. team has a chance for a breakthrough.
Kikkan Randall is a 30-year-old Alaskan who has risen to the top of the sprint world. She became the first U.S. woman to win a medal at the Nordic Worlds in 2009, when she finished second in the individual sprint. Randall shared the world title in the team sprint event last season with Jessie Diggins, and she captured the overall sprint title on the world-cup circuit last season. Could Randall or the team pull off a first by striking gold at these Olympics?
Holcomb has the drive
In Vancouver, Steven Holcomb drove his four-man bobsled, The Night Train, into history, leading the U.S. to its first gold medal in men's bobsledding since 1948 with teammates Steve Mesler, Curt Tomasevicz and Justin Olsen. Now Holcomb is back in the driver's seat with the Night Train sled and a new two-man sled built by BMW. In 2012, Holcomb drove both sleds to world titles, with Steve Langton acting as a push athlete in both events and Olsen and Tomasevicz back in the four-man sled. Can Holcomb and the U.S. team repeat their performance from 2010? Can they be even better in Sochi?
Can Shani shine?
Shani Davis is the most versatile and perhaps most accomplished speed skater of his generation. In an age of increased specialization, Davis has won both the World Sprint Championships, which includes two races each at both 500 and 1,000 meters, and the World Allround Championships, which includes races at four distances but favors skaters who excel at the longest races. Over the last two Olympics, he has focused on two events, taking a pair of golds in the 1,000 and a pair of silvers at 1,500 meters. He won silver and bronze at the World Single Distance Championships last year and is still a threat to win either of his two best events. Can Davis add to his medal haul and his legacy in Sochi?
Does Shaun still have it?
Shaun White has gone from being merely a great Olympic athlete with two Olympic titles in the halfpipe to being a virtual enterprise. The man who proved tomatoes can fly plays guitar in his own band and is said to make eight figures from a variety of endorsement deals. He has also dipped his locks into the new slopestyle discipline and may try to compete in multiple events in Sochi. White says he has reduced his training time, as he has gotten older and more involved in other projects, intensifying his workouts, but keeping them to two hours rather than the marathon preparation he used to employ. At 27, can White still command the sport and the attention of the X Games crowd the way he has in the past?