By Eddie Pells
AP National Writer
SOCHI, Russia – Time for the games to begin. Thank goodness.
To put it mildly, this has not been the most carefree of lead-ups to the Olympics. It has been roiled by security concerns, arguments about gay rights and the still-questionable hosting abilities of a country that spent $50 billion but remained busy slapping paint on buildings only hours before the cauldron was set to be lit.
Snowboarder Shaun White pulled out of slopestyle – one of the newest, most-anticipated events.
Lindsey Vonn never showed up.
Still, there are in the neighborhood of 3,000 skiers, skaters, sliders and others getting ready to put on a show for the next 16 days or so. Most of them will be at the opening ceremony Friday, where the long, time-filling barrage of fun facts about the 88 participating countries – “Yes, Bob, there really is a mountain in Jamaica. Blue Mountain Peak rises to 7,402 feet” – will brighten the TV coverage.
Then, on Saturday, it’s finally “go” time. (Except for the few dozen athletes who actually compete Thursday in a handful of events that started early due to a jam-packed schedule.)
Here are a few things to watch as the action gets going in earnest:
TEAM SKATING: Can he or can’t he? Russian skating icon Evgeni Plushenko won a spot for a newly added event, team figure skating. It was based upon a performance seen by nobody outside of the country’s top skating officials. Dealing with back problems, Plushenko has hardly been seen in actual competition over the past year. The skater who has already won Olympic gold and two silvers is hoping to add another to his collection in an event designed to bring a sense of camaraderie to a sport that has always been about individual performances. The men’s team long program is Sunday.
BREAKING YOUR OWN RECORD: In some circles, Ole Einar Bjoerndalen of Norway is considered among the best athletes of all time. He’s got a record 11 Olympic medals in the taxing sport of biathlon. Still competing at 40, he’ll go for No. 12 on Saturday in the 10 kilometer sprint. While Americans may not appreciate biathlon in the same way Olympic fans on the other side of the Atlantic do, everyone loves watching a wily ol’ pro give it one more shot. Bjoerndalen will certainly make it worth watching. “For me, only first place counts, you can forget the rest,” he said.
SEEING DOUBLE, AND TRIPLE: On the halfpipe, the Americans have the aptly named brother-sister team of Taylor and Arielle Gold. They compete next Tuesday and Wednesday. Meanwhile, Canada’s moguls team does them one better with three sisters from the Dufour-Lapointe family – Justine, Chloe and Maxime. Expect at least two of them to advance to the women’s moguls finals set for Saturday.
THERE’S STILL SLOPESTYLE: White might not be there, but the slopestyle course is steep, tricky and brutal. The calculus for the event changes daily, once the injuries are added up. Once, Canada’s Mark McMorris and White were expected to vie for gold. But McMorris broke a rib at the Winter X Games, meaning he’ll be riding in pain, and White is out so he can put all his energy into halfpipe. Canada’s Max Parrot won the X Games with a pair of triple corks, the toughest trick on the mountain. Another to watch in Saturday’s final: Canada’s Sebastien Toutant. American Jamie Anderson is the favorite for the women on Sunday.
TEST PATTERN: Let’s just say “hideous” is in the eye of the beholder. One set of the Norway men’s curling team’s pants look like a hopscotch layout gone wrong. Made by the same company that designed golfer John Daly’s pants (Google it if you must), they are red, then crisscrossed with thick blue and white stripes. Another pair has red, white and blue zig zags. Yet another is black and flowery. And there’s more to come – all top-secret surprises that viewers must tune in to see. Norway’s first match is next Tuesday. Do not adjust your set.