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Let's play some Winter Games

All you need to know in our handy-dandy guide to 2010 Olys

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VANCOUVER -- We don't get it at all, to be honest. Really, what's the deal with the two-man luge?

One man crawls onto a sled and races feet first down an icy track at speeds of around 100 km/h. We can understand that. Wouldn't try it, but we get it. But TWO guys curl up together and do the same thing... they actually give Olympic medals for that?

Hockey? C'mon, it's our game and the sport simply runs through every Canadian's blood. We'll be hanging on every shift in both the men's and women's games.

Speedskating? Who wouldn't get goose bumps watching the power and precision of a sport that is dominated by so many of our own? Ditto for curling, any kind of skiing competition, the bobsleigh and figure skating.

But the two-man luge is essentially one of those fringe sports most fans completely forget about for four years at a time before it is thrust into the spotlight when the Olympics are cranked up again.

We bring this up today because whether you're a diehard fan or a non-sports type, we are all about to be hit upside the head with a tsunami of Winter Olympic Games coverage over the next 17 days. Some of it can provide riveting drama -- hello, hockey -- and some of it may seem strangely exotic or foreign -- like the luge.

So with all this in mind, we figured we'd piece together a quick preview of some of the juicy storylines and important tidbits to know -- and maybe some not so juicy or important -- to help you get ready.

Call it our Handy-Dandy Guide to The Winter Olympics...

 

THE 4-1-1 ON THE TWO-MAN LUGE

LOOK, nobody said you had to watch it. But if you do decide to get all caught up in the action and want to play the expert in conversations at the office water cooler, we can tell you this about the two-man luge after minutes of exhaustive research:

'Luge' is a French word for sled and the sport originated in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in the 1800s. The racers steer with their legs and shoulders and brake by sitting up, putting their feet down, pulling on the runners and praying they screech to a stop before they rocket into the parking lot.

Oh, and history notes that Peter Minsch of Switzerland and George Robertson of Australia tied for first place in The Great International Sled Race of Feb. 12, 1883 by racing down a four-kilometre track between the Swiss villages of Klosters and Davos. No doubt they then retired to the lodge to fire back a few Jagermeisters.

 

WHAT'S THIS 'OWN THE PODIUM' CHATTER ALL ABOUT?

WE'LL cut to the chase on this: The Olympics are on home soil for only the second time in Canada's history. But after failing to win a gold medal in Montreal in the Summer Olympics in 1976 and in Calgary in the 1988 Winter Olympics, the plan now is to not just win gold, but grab more medals than any other nation at these Games. Thus, the establishment of the 'Own the Podium' program five years ago that featured increased government funding and now, Canada hopes, the payback in the medal standings.

Now while the goal may seem lofty, it's not really a stretch -- Canada finished with 24 medals four years ago in Turin (seven gold, 10 silver, seven bronze), behind only Germany's 29 and the United States, which picked up 25.

Eurobet has set these odds as to which country will win the most medals:

Germany 3-2

Canada 5-2

United States 7-2

Norway 6-1

Russia 12-1

Austria 16-1

Sweden 33-1

Switzerland 50-1

China 80-1

Italy 100-1

France 100-1

 

HOW ABOUT THE LOCAL CONTENT? HOW MANY MANITOBANS ARE WEARING CANADA'S COLOURS?

WE build them strong and quick here in Manitoba and our representation in Vancouver and Whistler reflects that.

The 16-member speedskating team, for example, is dominated by Manitobans and some of them have already won Olympic medals for Canada in the past, like Cindy Klassen, Clara Hughes and Shannon Rempel. Mike Ireland is an Olympic vet and is taking one more stab at the podium, and Brittany Schussler and Kyle Parrott are the next wave of Manitobans hoping to become medal favourites on the national squad.

Jennifer Botterill and Jonathan Toews will play prominent roles on the women's and men's hockey teams; Megan Imrie will compete in her first Olympics in biathlon, ditto Jon Montgomery in the skeleton.

There are other Manitoba-born athletes in Vancouver, too, including Carolyn Darbyshire -- second for Cheryl Bernard's curling squad -- Kevin Martin's third John Morris, ski-cross competitor Danielle Poleschuk and Team Canada defenceman Duncan Keith, who was born in Winnipeg before moving to Fort Frances, Ont., and Penticton, B.C.

 

SEVENTH? THAT'S A MISPRINT, RIGHT?

IT'S all a blur now -- a nightmare to others -- but it's time to open up an old wound from four years ago when Canada's NHLers completely embarrassed themselves by finishing seventh in Turin. Canada managed just 15 goals in going 3-2 in the round-robin -- 12 goals coming in wins over Italy and Germany -- but was shut out 2-0 by the Swiss and Finns, then lost by the same score to the Russians in the quarter-finals.

The Team Canada in Vancouver will be younger and, on paper at least, feature a lot more firepower, with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and others expected to fill the net. But the pressure to regroup after finishing seventh and find redemption on home ice will be monumental.

And, remember, for all the talent on Canada's roster since the NHL started taking a break during its regular season to allow players to participate in the Olympics, our lads have hardly wrapped themselves in glory, having finished fourth (1998, Nagano), first (1992, Salt Lake City) and seventh (2006, Turin).

Skybet ranks the odds to win gold in men's hockey this way:

Canada 11-10

Russia 13-5

Sweden 5-1

USA 9-1

Finland 11-1

Czech Republic 18-1

Slovakia 25-1

Switzerland 125-1

Belarus 400-1

Germany 400-1

Latvia 750-1

Norway 1000-1

 

FIVE NON-CANADIAN ATHLETES TO WATCH IN VANCOUVER/WHISTLER, AND WHY

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, Norway, biathlon: Considered by many to be the greatest Winter Olympian ever, the 36-year-old Bjoerndalen has won nine Olympic medals (five gold, three silver and one bronze) and has hit the podium in each of his Olympic appearances in 1998, 2002 and 2006.

Lindsey Vonn, United States, alpine skiing: She is the Americans' poster girl for these Games and has already seen her image splashed everywhere. Heck, she was even invited to walk the red carpet at the Emmy Awards. Oh, and she can ski a bit, too: She is the two-time defending World Cup champ and some figure she could win four gold medals in the mountains.

Carlo Janka, Switzerland, alpine skiing: The next great superstar of the sport, Janka won three races on three consecutive days in three different disciplines back in December -- the first skier to do so since Jean-Claude Killy in 1967.

Lee Ho-Suk, South Korea, short-track speedskating. Four-time Olympic medallist Ahn Hyun-Soo failed to qualify for the Olympics (he suffered a knee injury in 2009) and Lee, a world champion, has stepped up to fill the void and chase American favourite Apolo Anton Ohno.

Alexander Ovechkin, Russia, hockey: The most dynamic and entertaining player in the NHL may hold the same title in Vancouver by the time these Games are done.

 

THREE JUICY OLYMPIC RIVALRIES 

Figure skaters Brian Joubert, France vs. Patrick Chan, Canada: The sport is hardly known for its trash talk, but these two have been jawing at each other for a long spell. Joubert has complained about the lack of quad jumps in men's figure skating; Chan countered by calling the Frenchman a sore loser and chronic complainer.

Canada vs. U.S., women's hockey: One of the biggest criticisms of women's hockey is that internationally only two countries can challenge for gold. True that: Canada has won nine world championships and two Olympic golds; the US has three world championships and an Olympic gold.
No other nation has bumped those two off the top two spots on the podium except Sweden, which bumped the Americans to third in Turin in finishing second to Canada. That may make the round-robin dull, but the championship games are always a dandy.

Shani Davis, United States speedskater vs. anybody: He's a world-record holder, but he's also feuded with teammates and coaches at U.S. Speedskating -- so much so that he moved to Calgary to train and asked for his bio to be removed from the team's website -- and even called TV talk-show host Stephen Colbert, the man who helped the U.S. squad financially when their major sponsor went bankrupt, a "jerk."

 

CHINA: THE 'X' FACTOR NATION

IT'S not too complicated here. When a nation of more than 1.3 billion people decides to undertake any sport, chances are it won't be too long before they find and then train a collection of athletes who can dominate.

It's already happened in short-track speedskating, where the Chinese gobble up medals, and in women's curling, where Bingyu Wang's team from Harbin is the reigning world champion. The evidence is piling up in other sports as well. China's snowboarding and aerial skiing teams -- think gymnastics on a Burton board or skis -- are already starting to medal, with three women winning a World Cup snowboarding event in Quebec in late January.

China won 11 medals in Turin (two gold, four silver, five bronze) to finish 14th overall. The country is sending its largest Winter Olympics delegation to Vancouver -- 91 athletes, up 20 from Turin. Expect them to move up the standings.

 

WHAT'S NEW?

THE International Olympic Committee is always on the hunt for new hybrid-type sports that can attract the 'X Games' generation where cross-country skiing and biathlon cannot. The spawn of the latest brainstorm is ski-cross, which has been described as motocross meets ski racing, and it makes its Olympic debut at Cypress Mountain. There will be enough crashes, elbows and fighting for position to fill the thirst of any X Games-NASCAR fan and, honestly, there's very little chance it still won't be around in Sochi, Russia, for the next Winter Olympics in 2014.

"I think it's the most fun you can have on a pair of skis," Jamaican ski-cross competitor Error Kerr told the New York Daily News. "You're going at high speeds over big jumps and rough terrain. You have to be ready for someone to take you on the inside. For some ski racers, it would be really intimidating."

We're sold.

 

STILL NOT CONVINCED... WHY SHOULD I TUNE IN?

LOOK, if nothing else, the Olympics can awaken the patriot in even the most docile citizen.

These kind of events aren't just about sports; they are a chance to showcase our country and our cultures to the world through everything from the opening and closing ceremonies to every single landscape shot broadcast by networks all over the globe. As the latest Molson Canadian commercial puts it: "Canada: Look at this place. We have more square feet of awesomeness per person than any other nation on earth."

Hear, hear.

And if you can't get all jacked up for that -- even for a nanosecond -- then don't even bother turning on the tube again until early March. But if all this hype makes you proud to be from the true north strong and free, then the next few weeks are right in your wheelhouse.

Hunker down, tune in and let the Games begin, eh!

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 12, 2010 C4

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