Saturday, February 8, 2014

A Very Brief, Non-Nordic Addict's Guide to Sochi

Ok, so maybe you don't read FasterSkier religiously, and maybe you even missed the vigorous yet surprisingly civil discussion about Caitlin Gregg stupidly being left off of the Olympic team despite cleaning up on the domestic circuit this winter. (I mean c'mon, her husband gets named to the team but she stays home?; nicely played on the P.R. front, USSA Nordic. And not even filling out the entire team quota for the U.S.? No wonder Russia has two more total athletes at the Games than the U.S. ...). And maybe you're already tired of images of double toilets, undrinkable water, and stray dogs -- and of NBC's sanitized coverage. Hmm, so much for seeing the ring snafu during the Opening Ceremonies broadcast. And really Matt Lauer -- "I just hope during these Olympics we can talk about the things that really matter." Really? So Russia's autocratic state, the deaths of workers to build the games, the ethnic cleansing of the Circassians, etc., don't matter? No wonder Today Show ratings have tanked.

I don't have much to add on the absurdity-of-holding-a-corrupt-Olympics-in-a-war-zone front, except to stay that I hope in the years to come, the IOC (and FIFA for that matter) add respect for basic human rights to the list of criteria they consider when selecting locales for international sporting events. Well that and my favorite observation so far about the Games was this one from the Times: "Like much of this city, the bus has the Sochi Olympics slogan emblazoned on its side: 'Hot. Cool. Yours.' It sounds like a second-place pitch for the McDLT, the short-lived McDonald’s sandwich that promised to keep the burger side warm and the lettuce side chilled."

With that mini-rant out of the way, I'll agree the Games should primarily be about the games. In that spirit, here is a guide to everything the casual fan will need to know about the Nordic events (which includes biathlon, Nordic Combined, and Jumping) but were afraid to ask. Make that a guide minus the biathlon: I'm no expert there, and the Americans have only remote medal chances.

If you want a full TV schedule for the Games, it's here, and a list of just the Nordic events is here. And if you want to see what life is like in the Olympic Village, the best place to go is US Ski Team member Noah Hoffman's blog. He's already posted tons of images behind the scenes at the Opening Ceremonies and of Kris Freeman in the disco, the ski course, and the food in the dining hall.

My overall advice is: think women. With all apologies to the aforementioned Noah Hoffman, a rising star in distance events, the aforementioned Kris Freeman, a 4-time Olympian who was kicked off the US ski team at the end of the last year for weak results and is the sentimental favorite to miraculously medal (the 15K classic on Feb. 14 is his only remote shot), Simi Hamilton, a sprinter who won a World Cup race last month, becoming the first American male to win a World Cup race in over 30 years, Andy Newell, the most consistent American male sprinter over the past few years who is always a threat to podium, and, finally, the Nordic Combined Team, which won a bucket of medals in Vancouver (and one medal at the World Championships last year) and is getting the ol' band together for one last tour [6-time Olympian Todd Lodwick carried the flag in the Opening Ceremonies], the women's cross-country team is much, much stronger.

Jessie Diggins is a rising star (with her own fun blog) who will do well in the first race of the Games, if you watch it canned later today, Liz Stephen is J and my favorite because she directed us to an awesome pizzeria in Predazzo a year ago, and, above all, Kikkan Randall is badassery on skis. She is the two-time season-long reigning champion in the sprints (races about 1-2 kilometers) and she goes into the sprint race in Sochi, according to the British odds-makers, the favorite to win the gold medal. For a typical example of her awesomeness, copy and paste the below address and start at 1 hour 14 into the clip:

Or see the first YouTube video below.

Finally, you're probably heard about the Women's Ski Jumping Team, which is pretty much a Park City residents' team; this is the first year that Women's Jumping has been in the Games after a long drawn out battle (which included suing the Canadians after being excluded from Vancouver), and Sarah Hendrickson, the best jumper in the world, is back from injury. (American men's jumping, I am afraid, is at a historic low point.)

So the must-see events (all times based on canned coverage: most people don't want to get up at 2 a.m. to stream live) are the Sprint Finals the afternoon broadcast on Tuesday, Feb. 11, the Women's Ski Jumping Final later that night, and, above all, the women's 4x5k relay on the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 15. This is going to be one of the marquee moments of the Games, I promise. The U.S. was fourth last year in this event at World Championships, but they've been third in the last two relays on the World Cup. The relays are always the most exciting (globally, the men's relay a day later is THE x-c event of the Games), and this is one is going to be especially exciting with the U.S. women having a great shot at their first-ever Olympic-relay medal. In addition, the U.S. team of Randall and Diggins won gold in the Team Sprint at World Championships last year (two skiers tag off to each other several times) in dramatic fashion after Diggins lost a pole just a minute or so into this clip:

The Team Sprint in Sochi is classic, not skating, so the U.S. won't be favored, but the event is still worth watching on the afternoon of Wednesday, Feb. 19.

As of now the schedule does not list a time for the Nordic Combined team relay event on Feb. 20, which is really stupid on NBC's part given the U.S. won the silver in Vancouver.

The concluding long races (30K for the women and 50k for the guys) the last weekend of the Olympics are worth watching, too. It will be fun to see if Petter Northug, who was the Tiger Woods of skiing for a few years (with the same surly arrogance) can still be Tiger Woods. He's lost maybe a half-step, and he's been battling a virus, but when he crushes the field, it's pretty awesome. This is the sheer domination we saw last year at World Championships (start about 1:30 into the clip):

You can watch races after the fact at

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