With the Winter Olympics in Sochi only a month away, Jack Houghton conducts a whistle-stop tour of the main events and thinks that Russia's stars may benefit from from a home Games...
"Aksel Lund Svindal showed in Vancouver that he is capable of getting himself ready for the big occasion: he won three medals there, one of each colour."
The blue riband event of the Winter Olympics is the Men's Downhill. A fast, steep course down the side of a mountain: the fastest wins. For many years, the favourite to be that fastest would have been Didier Cuche, but his retirement from the sport at the end of last season has left a dominance-void that someone is yet to fill. That person may be Aksel Lund Svindal, who showed in Vancouver that he is capable of getting himself ready for the big occasion: he won three medals there, one of each colour. His closest competitor may be Canada's Eric Guay. News that Lindsay Vonn will not be competing in Sochi leaves the women's race wide open, and Maria Höfl-Riesch - usually more successful in the turning disciplines - is a good bet to take advantage.
Four other medals come under the heading of Alpine Skiing. The Slalom is a short-course event with multiple turns required through gates, decided over two runs. Marcel Hirscher is the dominant force in Men's Slalom these days, but don't discount Ted Ligety at a bigger price: he's more than capable and has a big-event temperament.
The Giant Slalom has fewer, less-tight turns than the Slalom, and the Super-G combines these turns with more of a downhill course. Completing the five gold-medals on offer is the Super Combined, which goes to the skier with the best result in one downhill event and one slalom. Svindal is best placed to take the honours here, although Bode Millar, despite not enjoying the course in Sochi, has an outside chance of finding enough of his old magic to win this.
While the Men's Downhill may be the aficionado's highlight of the games, Ice Hockey is probably the most popular event for the more transient winter sports' fan. This is in large part due to the Cold-War sub-plot that accompanied the event during the Big Red Machine's dominance in the 60s, 70s and 80s, making it essential viewing for all of us who grew up with the seeming omnipresent threat of a third world-war and nuclear Armageddon. Since 1996, though, the event has been more competitive, with Sweden (twice), Canada (twice) and the Czech Republic (once) all winning gold.
Early betting markets have Russia and Canada as joint favourites at around 3.211/5. Of the two, Russia, with the significance of home advantage, are the most likely winners, but Sweden might be the smart bet at around 7.006/1, who have been the best international team of recent months.
Ten gold medals are on offer in this brutal sport whose competitors are feted by other endurance athletes as some of the toughest in the world. Norway are the pre-eminent cross-country skiing nation, having won seven of the available ten medals on offer in last year's Nordic Ski World Championship. Petter Northug is their star turn, who is seen by many as the best of all time. He will be favourite for the 15km freestyle, and will likely anchor Norway as favourites for the 4x10km.
In the sprint events, look out for Nikita Kriukov who will enjoy home support, especially as part of the two-man Team Sprint contest.
In the women's events, Marit Bjørgen and Therese Johaug could well orchestrate a gold-medal clean-sweep for Norway, although Yuliya Chekaleva will have hopes of a home medal in the 10km freestyle.
Eleven medals on offer for this sport that grew out of a training regime instigated for those in the Norwegian military in the 19th Century. Competitors are required to cross-country ski over various distances, stopping intermittently to shoot at five targets, 50 metres away, half the time from a standing position, the other half lying prone. Missed targets bring various penalties, which include skiing penalty loops or having penalty time added to a competitor's total.
It sounds complicated to the uninitiated, but is strangely addictive to watch, especially with contestants' pulse rates displayed on screen as they shoot at targets: an indication of how likely they are to shoot accurately.
Ole Einar Bjørndalen - although generally regarded as the best biathlete of all time - is not the force he once was, and although he will likely still play a role in the likely victorious Norwegian relay teams, Martin Fourcade of France and Norway's Emil Hegle Svendsen will likely be joint favourites for all of the individual races. Worth a look, though, is relative youngster in this sport, Russia's Anton Shipulin. He picked up two medals at last year's Biathlon World Championships and has high hopes in the 15km mass start. Expect him to lead a Russian charge for glory in the Biathlon events.
In the women's events, keep an eye out for Tora Berger, the dominant biathlete of recent seasons. She will likely start favourite for all events she enters, and will anchor a dominant Norwegian team to relay victory, as well as taking part in the mixed relay, where Norway again will be hard to beat.
A two-man, a four-man, and a two-woman make up the three gold medals on offer in the bobsleigh at the Sanki Sliding Centre in Sochi, where teams are asked to sprint next to their fibreglass-missile-on-blades for 50 metres before jumping in and trying to make it to the bottom of the course in the shortest time. The best combined time over two runs takes gold. Having once bob-sleighed down the Olympic course in Sestriere with part of the French national team (it's a long story), I can confirm (as can my trousers) that it is the most frightening experience on earth.
Alexandr Zubkov has piloted the Russia's four-man bob to World Cup glory over the last two seasons, but was beaten into joint-third place in last year's final race held at the Olympic venue in Sochi. Furthermore, his team, although ever-presently high-ranked in events this season, have yet to win a World Cup race, and were beaten into silver in last year's World Championships. Better bets might be Maximilian Arndt's German team and Steven Holcomb - who is recovering from a vision problem, which must inspire confidence from his passengers - and his US team, who have been the dominant bobs in recent events.
The combination of Steven Holcomb and Steven Langton look dominant for the US in the two-man event, and the two-woman bob should be a shoot-out between Canada and the US.
Ten nations will compete for gold in the men's and women's events in a sport we all became arm-chair experts in when Rhona Martin led the GB team to gold in Salt Lake City in 2002. Martin is still involved with the GB set up as coach in Sochi, and with Scotland's women winning gold at last year's World Championships, skippered by Eve Muirhead, and with Scotland's men finishing fourth in their event, Team GB stands a good chance of further glory in Sochi.
Known as "chess on ice", in Curling each game is played over ten ends, with each team sliding eight stones towards a target ("house") which carries varying accuracy points. The curler is assisted by team mates who try to alter the speed and direction of their stone by sweeping the ice with varying degrees of mania. Lots of shouting signal moments of tension is this strangely viewer-addictive sport.