Sunday, February 14, 2010

Seven Olympic Nordic Skiing Questions

(Cross-posted to Blowing & Drifting)

So excited am I about the nordic skiing Olympics that I'd happily watch coverage of the teams' wax techs prepping skis for the racers. Just the same, here are seven competition-related questions that I'm especially eager to see answered.

How many golds will be won by Norway's Petter Northug and Poland's Justyna Kowalczyk?
Northug and Kowalczyk are the dominant racers on the cross-country World Cup this year. Each has substantial leads over the rest of the fields in the overall WC standings, and each can win over any distance or technique. Moreover, each racer is practically foreordained to win several medals at Vancouver, with the main issue being whether either or both can do the superhuman and win golds in all the events they event - all four individual races for Kowalczyk, possibly (but not probably) the four individual races and the two team races for Northug.

My own guess is that Kowalczyk will win two golds, in the 10km skate and the classic sprint, and medal in the pursuit and the classic mass start. I think Northug will do even better: golds in the 15km skate, the pursuit, and the relay and lesser medals in the classic mass start and the team sprint. I don't think he'll medal in the individual classic sprint - but then again, Petter's a wily and ultracompetitive racer. Then again, everyone is trying to peak for these races, and both Northug and Kowalczyk could be shut out - especially if they are victimized by the notoriously variable and difficult conditions at the cross-country skiing venue.

Has any other racer or team figured out a way to beat Northug?
Speaking of notoriety, Northug is infamous for his tactics and his antics: conserving energy by closely trailing other racers for as long as possible, then unleashing his unparalleled finishing sprint to surge past and take the win - at which point he loves to gesticulate, trash-talk, wave, point, and of course, collapse in a heap. The Norwegians love it - and him; pretty much everyone else hates it - and him. But like a sage once said, it ain't bragging if you can do it.

Then again, Northug's main rivals would love to beat him, and I hope for some tricks and outright hard efforts to accomplish that goal. From a couple races last season and from the Tour de Ski earlier this season, it's clear that savvy racers can use repeated attacks on young Petter to tire him out and destroy his vaunted end-of-race kick. The trouble is, there are precious few racers who have the strength enough to do it, with Lukas Bauer - the Tour de Ski champ this year - being perhaps the only single skier who can. On the other hand, if the Russians, Finns, or Germans use some team tactics, they might be able to organize a series of attacks to wear Northug out and put one of their own in position to win. Or they might do all that, get counterattacked by the Norwegians - not a team of slackers - and see Northug sprint to the win anyhow. Still, it's better to do and die…

How many medals will be won by the American nordic combined skiers?
Over the last two World Cup seasons, Americans Bill Demong, Todd Lodwick, and Johnny Spillane have emerged as some of the strongest individual racers in nordic combined, the sport which mixes ski jumping and cross-country skiing, and certainly the best team in NC. At last year's world championships, for instance, Lodwick won two golds, Demong a gold and a bronze. The US has never won a nordic combined medal at the Olympics, but that will almost certainly change at Vancouver. The only question is whether the Americans' performance will be so-so, with a bronze or two, or dominant, with golds and silvers in the two individual events - and even a win in the team event.

Will American cross-country skiers win any medals?
Many in the US - myself included - are on the verge of expecting to see a medal around one of our XC racers' necks at Vancouver. On paper, and probably on snow, our best hopes are Andy Newell and Kikkan Randall in the sprints; both have reached the podiums at World Cup races and Randall even won the silver at last year's World Champs. Kris Freeman can be a force in the distance races, and if he finally puts things together juuuuuuust right, "Bird" can win a medal - his stated goal for the games. A few other members of the US team could contend, but apart from Torin Koos, who is rounding back into sprinting form, mostly lack the big-race experience that might translate into medals in 2014. I will be surprised but enormously pleased to see an American win a medal at Vancouver.

Will Canadian cross-country skiers win any medals?
Expectations are even higher for the Canadian team, which is racing on home snow and, more importantly, includes a number of racers who have reached World Cup podiums, including two who medaled at the Torino games: Sara Renner (silver in the team sprint) and Chandra Crawford (gold in the individual sprint). Crawford's off her best form right now, but Renner is conversely rounding into world-class shape and has an outside shot at a medal in virtually any of the races. On the men's side, Devon Kershaw, Alex Harvey, and Ivan Babikov are all excellent racers who could vie for medals in any number of events - even, on a great day, the relay. I won't be surprised if a Canadian wins a medal at Vancouver.

Can Tim Burke medal in the biathlon?
American Tim Burke has this season moved into the uppermost echelon of biathlon, the skiing-shooting sport that is colossally important in Europe. Earlier this season, Burke even wore the yellow bib of the overall leader of the biathlon world cup. Though his form has declined a bit since that peak, he could well recapture it at Vancouver, and must be considered to have a decent shot (pun!) at a medal in 2010, which would be America's first-ever biathlon medal and which would go a long way toward breaking the Norwegian-German-Russian stranglehold on the sport.

Who will be caught for doping at the Olympics?
I hope to hell that no nordic athletes will be caught with EPO, CERA, S107, or any other banned substances in their bodily wastes, but the odds don't favor my hope. Not only were Austrian racers caught at Torino, and Russian skiers caught at Salt Lake City, but the past year has seen a number of high-level racers - including many Russians - fail their drug tests. It's almost certain that someone will get nailed at Vancouver. If I had to guess, I would expect a Russian or even (sadly) Justyna Kowalczyk, who simply performs at too high a level too often. But god, I hope it's a clean games.