Jack Houghton previews the 2018 Winter Olympics and warns that we should beware of dodgy medal favourites Norway...
"Although Germany has been dominant in recent World Cup events, Canada arguably has the most strength in depth. If they can convert on their strong chances in Ice Hockey, Ice Skating, Snowboard and Curling, they will be hard to catch..."
With some of the preliminaries in curling and ski jumping getting underway on Thursday, and the Opening Ceremony on Friday, it's the quadrennial moment when we all become temporary experts on sports we previously knew not the existence of. It's also the time when I look up how to spell quadrennial.
Perhaps against expectations, the Winter Olympics is often a fertile arena for some cracking bets. The markets are not as efficient and well-informed as in other sports, which means that, with a bit of research, and lots of nous, there's usually money to be made.
So, for an event that looked in doubt at the end of 2017, with security concerns around North Korea, a stones-throw (or should that be missile-launch?) from the host venue, it's time to forget about nuclear Armageddon, and instead focus on the marvellous spectacle of Lycra-clad men and women doing unlikely things on snow and ice.
Norway [1.95] won't have previous medal-table chart-toppers Russia to contend with at these Olympics, with Russian athletes either subject to a blanket Olympic ban, or, if they have demonstrated their probity, able only to compete under the Olympic flag. Norway's favouritism is unsurprising, with a host of golds, as usual, expected in biathlon and cross-country skiing.
However, whilst expectant eyes will be on the likes of Marit Bjoergen, it's worth remembering that Norway has lost one of its stars to a doping offence and previous stalwart, Ole Einar Bjoerndalen didn't qualify for PyeongChang. With dead heat rules applying and previous games seeing tight finishes in the race for golds, backing a doubtful odds-on shot seems the wrong move. Focus instead on Canada [23.0], Germany [3.55] and the United States [7.80], with preference, at those odds, for Canada. Although Germany has been dominant in recent World Cup events, Canada arguably has the most strength in depth. If they can convert on their strong chances in Ice Hockey, Ice Skating, Snowboard and Curling, they will be hard to catch.
Aksel Lund Svindal has returned to form this year after an injury kept him out in 2017. However, he is on record as having said that his physical preparation has not been ideal. He will likely show little in training, gambling on a gung-ho approach when the medals are decided. That brings with it risks, though, and a safer bet might be World Cup leader Beat Feuz. At likely much larger odds, though, Peter Fill, who skied well in a test event in PyeongChang last year, is worth a punt - he's notched up a couple of strong performances already this year on the tour and can cause a minor surprise in what looks like a fallow time downhill.
When the market crystallises, Marcel Hirscher will likely be the odds-on favourite. Arguably the greatest skier of all time, he has largely bettered Henrik Kristoffersen this year, and fans will be hopeful he can add an elusive Olympic gold to his otherwise complete trophy haul. Britain's Dave Ryding has a genuine shot at a medal, though. He's strung together several top ten finishes over the last couple of seasons and, were the top guns unable to fire, Ryding would be among a group of the next tier of skiers who could post a shock result.
This will be superstar Lindsey Vonn's last Olympics, but her form in 2018 suggests a fairytale curtain call is unlikely. Instead, eyes will be on her teammate Mikaela Shiffrin, who has not only dominated downhill this season, but has been pre-eminent in all the alpine events. Shiffrin is set to be the star of these Games.
If Mikaela Shiffrin is the shining light of the alpine events, then home favourite Sungbin Yun will take that role in sliding. He has been the most consistent competitor on the World Cup circuit this year, never finishing outside the top two in six events. What's more he has more experience of the PyeongChang track than his competitors. Early odds of [1.38] are ridiculously short, though, with the pressure of home expectation likely to play a role, and with the likes of the Durkurs brothers more than capable of a fast run.
In our most successful event of recent Winter Olympics, Britain will hope that Laura Deas can add to the golds of Lizzy Yarnold and Amy Williams in the previous two editions of this event. Favourite will likely be Jacqueline Loelling at around [1.80], but at those odds I'd be a layer - a valid case can be made for a dozen different sliders winning this.
Four Man Bobsleigh
If ever a sport was in a period of transition, then it's Bobsleigh. Racked, like much of sport, by stories of Russian improprieties, that have seen previous bobsleigh medals stripped, and with the old guard either retired or, in the case of Steven Holcomb, dead, there is a feeling that any number of teams could emerge victorious. World Cup results give little away, and the best strategy may be to see which of Germany, Canada, Latvia, Switzerland and the United States are the longest odds at the off, and back that team to win.
Whilst 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 (hang on a second...) Since 1996, though, the event has been more competitive, with Sweden (twice), Canada (thrice) and the Czech Republic (once) all winning gold.
You'd think that the most interesting talking point this year would be the impact of the absence of NHL players, but that story has been usurped by the trials of the Russian team and the news of a joint Korea team taking the ice.
Despite the disadvantage of not fielding (or should that be ice-ing) their best players, Canada remain favourites for the event, although Sweden and Finland may cause a minor upset.