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Sochi 2014: Winter Olympics set to begin in Russia

By MIKE RABUN, UPI Sports Writer   |   Feb. 2, 2014 at 7:30 AM   |   Comments

SOCHI, Russia, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- The Winter Olympics, which as much as any other huge sporting enterprise has adapted itself to the winds of change, convenes this week amid concerns about possible terrorism.

A smothering blanket of security has been thrown over the 16 days of athletic endeavor in and around the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which is near the restive North Caucasus region.

But if all goes well, 98 gold medals will be handed out to athletes who, according to the rules set down by the International Olympic Committee, will compete on either ice or snow.

It all begins with the opening ceremonies on Friday and the first of the medal events on Saturday. The final gold medal will go to the winner of the men's hockey tournament, the championship game taking place Feb. 23.

Many of the Olympic events will go to the very roots of winter sports.

The men's and women's downhill races are among those -- one breathtaking trip down the mountain to see who is fastest. So is the 50-kilometer cross-country ordeal, the Winter Olympics' version of the marathon.

Figure skating competitions will symbolize grace and elegance at the highest level and speed skating -- both short and long track -- will display raw power.

Hurtling down an icy corridor in a bobsled has been a major part of the Games since winter sports were first celebrated in Chamonix in 1924 and technology has steadily advanced the structure and the speed of the sport to the point that time differences are measured in thousandths of a second.

These, however, are the fourth Winter Olympics of the 21st century and the Games have dramatically altered with the times.

As young athletes around the world began to be lured to new and expressive forms of winter competition, the IOC took note.

Snowboarding events were added to the Games in 1998 and various forms of freestyle skiing became a part of the competition in 2002. Now those two disciplines will make up 20 percent of the medal events in Sochi.

Both of them bring into play imagination along with lots and lots of daring.

Of the 12 additions to the 2014 program, eight will occur in snowboarding and freestyle skiing.

Also new to the Games will be a biathlon relay in which two men and two women take part. There will be a team event in figure skating, a luge relay and a first-ever ski jumping competition for women.

The growing trend toward the jumps, flips and spectacular tricks found in freestyle skiing and snowboarding has had its impact on the race for medals.

At the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, the last held before snowboarding was added to the schedule, the United States won six gold medals and 13 overall. Athletes from Russia, Norway, Germany and Italy all won more golds and more overall medals than those from America.

When the Games were most recently contested in Vancouver four years ago, the United States collected 37 total medals -- seven more than any other nation. It was the first time in the history of the Winter Olympics that Americans had earned the most medals.

Canada led the way in gold medals with 14, Germany had 10 and the Americans settled for nine. But the depth of the U.S. contingent was greater than ever before.

More of the same is expected in Sochi.

Snowboarding king Shaun White, who as much as anyone has carried the Winter Olympics to its modern configuration, will be trying for two gold medals. He soars higher than anyone in sport, puts his body through more contortions and will be seeking a third straight gold in the halfpipe.

He will also try to win the snowboarding slopestyle competition in its debut. The slopestyle event sends snowboarders down a course filled with obstacles and along the way jumps and tricks are performed. Freestyle skiers will have their own version of slopestyle.

White will be joined by a deep American squad headlined by two-time Olympic champion speed skater Shani Davis and defending freestyle skiing moguls gold medal winner Hannah Kearney.

Veterans Bode Miller and Ted Ligety will be once more be seeking medals in the alpine events and slalom phenom Miaela Shiffrin will make her Olympic debut.

In all, 230 U.S. athletes will compete in and around Sochi with 13 of them already owning an Olympic gold medal. There will be a record 94 American skiers and snowboarders present, eight of whom have at least one gold from past Olympics.

Through most of the 20th century, members of the U.S. Winter Olympics squad were usually overshadowed by their European counterparts.

The current generation has brought about some large changes in that regard and those changes should continue to manifest themselves in the latest installment of the world's largest winter sports carnival.

© 2014 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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