Third Olympics as American favourite to mine precious metal up in mountains at Whistler
VANCOUVER: Italian ski showman Alberto Tomba turned the 1992 Albertville Olympics into Alberto-ville, and now Lindsey Vonn is putting out a welcome mat for Vonn-couver.
The host city that grew up at a time of 19th century gold rushes is braced for another stampede, this time of eager athletes brandishing skis and skates — and the occasional broom — rather than picks and shovels.
Vonn, Alpine skiing’s fresh-faced golden girl, is favoured to mine a rich seam of the precious metal up in the mountains at Whistler.
The winner of every women’s downhill bar one this winter, the American has dominated women’s skiing since she struggled with injury after a training crash at the last Turin Games and has lived in the full glare of US media attention in the run-up to Vancouver.
The 25-year-old Minnesota-born skier, who used to race under her maiden name of Kildow, has already won the World Cup super-G title and leads the overall, downhill and super-combined standings. She is also a past winner in slalom and combined.
If all goes to plan, and the technical events are her weakest point, she could ski away with five medals from her third Olympics.
Vonn joins the ‘Flying Tomato’, the moniker given to red-haired Olympic halfpipe champion snowboarder Shaun White, and speed skaters Shani Davis and Apolo Anton Ohno as the headline names in an invading US team intent on over-running their northern cousins.
The free-spirited Ohno, a native of nearby Seattle, is already a familiar face with his bandana and goatee beard, but the short track skater plans on being remembered more as the United States’ most decorated Winter Olympian.
He already has five medals from two previous Games and, entered in four events, has every chance of skating past Bonnie Blair’s American record of six.
Davis, who in 2006 became the first black man to win an individual Winter Games gold, is favourite to defend his 1,000 metres title and also holds the world record at 1,500 metres.
White will be the man to beat at Cypress Mountain, a snowboarding superstar with a cult following who also ranks as probably the wealthiest athlete in the village thanks to endorsements running into the multi-millions.
Canadians, craving gold more than most after failing to take any from their two previous home Olympics (Montreal in the summer of 1976 and Calgary’s 1988 Winter Games), also plan to “own the podium” in the mountains but are likely to be more fixated by the ice hockey.
The sport has a near-religious status in the game’s spiritual home, and the 2010 men’s tournament could be one of the all-time highs with tickets for the final already on offer at US$50,000 a pair.
If that fails, there will always be brooms to sweep away the pain: Curling boasts more registered players in Canada than the rest of the world combined and their men and women are always rock steady.
The showcase men’s downhill kicks off the Alpine programme on Saturday, the morning after an opening ceremony held indoors for the first time, as the highlight of the first day.
Watch out for Switzerland’s Carlo Janka, an all-rounder with impeccable timing who took three wins in three days at Colorado’s Beaver Creek resort in December and then triumphed again in Wengen last month.
Rebellious American daredevil Bode Miller, the world’s most controversial ski racer, will also be a focus of attention in Whistler as he tries to fill the only gap in his medal collection after flopping in Turin four years ago.
The ski resort is home to now-retired Ross Rebagliati, the first Olympic snow board gold medallist who in 1998 was stripped of his medal after traces of marijuana showed up in a drugs test and then reinstated.
Olympic officials are braced for more doping controversies in Vancouver.
There were seven positive tests in Turin and Salt Lake City and International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge said last month that something around that figure would not be surprising.
The Austrian biathletes and cross country skiers were in the eye of the storm in Turin and, after a lacklustre men’s Alpine season so far, that country will be banking on Gregor Schlierenzauer to soar away with the ski jumping medals.
If the downhillers are the speed fiends of the winter world, Yevgeny Plushenko will take some of that racing mentality into the figure skating competition when he defends his singles crown at the Pacific Coliseum.
The Russian, who has a passion for fast cars, is trying to become the first male figure skater in almost six decades to defend a title.
None of the ski-crossers will have that worry.
The Winter X Games staple, involving wild head-to-head racing down a course filled with curves and jumps, is making its Olympic debut.
Bobsleigh, also known as Formula One on ice, has German veteran Andre ‘The Cannibal’ Lange trying to become the first man to win three successive Olympic titles in the four-man, and world champion Steve Holcomb in the US ‘Night Train’.
Lyndon Rush will fly the home flag in the two-man competition after recently winning his first World Cup race in St Moritz.
Canada. Gold. Rush. What a combination that would be. — Reuters