Nothing in sports has quite the pomp and circumstance of the Olympics, and while it doesn’t necessarily showcase the biggest names or the most popular sports, the Games comprise one of the most engaging events in sports. And the 2014 Sochi Games are no different.
Like every sporting event, the Olympics has its fair share of anointed athletes, comeback appearances and dark-horse contenders.
Unlike most sporting events, the Games are a chance for completely unknown athletes to make an appearance on the biggest stage.
Some of the most compelling stories this year are the big ones—Mikaela Shiffrin, the Russian hockey team. Some are much less known—Marit Bjoergen, Wang Meng. And some are just too good to be true—who isn’t rooting for the Jamaican bobsleigh team?
What makes the Olympics special is that some of the best stories don’t have anything to do with winning or losing; they’re simply feel-good sports moments.
The Games are undoubtedly heavy on sentiment, but that’s part of the appeal.
After four years of preparation and a lifetime of training in near anonymity, Olympic athletes have the chance to dominate the world arena, and that experience is unparalleled anywhere else in sports.
It’s a unique experience for the viewer too. Even watching at home, we can feel the weight of the moment.
At the end of the day, the Olympics is about coming together to celebrate sports (many of which have been happening away from the public eye for the past four years) and as unfortunate as the political scandal surrounding this year’s Games has been, that doesn’t alter the time-tested appeal of watching an athlete achieve the ultimate success on the biggest stage in the world.
Who: Wayne Blackwood, Marvin Dixon, Hanukkah Wallace, Winston Watts
Event: Bobsleigh (Feb. 16-17, 22-23)
Why: Technically, this isn’t an Olympic story yet, but if Wayne Blackwood, Marvin Dixon, Hanukkah Wallace and Winston Watts qualify in St. Moritz this weekend, the foursome will herald the return of one of the greatest Olympic stories in recent memory, the proverbial Jamaican bobsleigh team.
What started as an improbable run by the Jamaican bobsleigh team to the Calgary Games in 1988 has become a pop culture icon and an everyday aphorism about unlikely success.
Of course, the saga wouldn’t be complete without more Cinderella moments. A lack of funding for the team forced Watts, the pilot, to use his own savings to help back the team.
“In truth, we still don’t really know at the moment if we’d even have enough funds or sponsorship to fly to Sochi itself for the Games itself,” Watts told Ian Chadband from The Telegraph. “But, I’m one of life’s optimists. I put my heart on the line for this.”
See footage of the 1988 team here.
Event: Women’s Ski Jumping (new event in Sochi) (Feb. 14)
Why: After a decade-long struggle to include women’s ski jumping in the Olympics, the event will finally debut next month in Sochi, and Atsuko Tanaka will be one to watch in the debut event.
Though the women’s hill in Sochi will be noticeably shorter than the men’s—105 meters versus 140 meters—Tanaka is still looking forward to doing what she loves on the world stage. “It’s like being a bird,” Tanaka told the Toronto Star’s Kerry Gillespie. “You get that air time for a few seconds that nobody else gets to experience.”
Event: Luge (Feb. 8, 9, 12, 13)
Why: Though India is not a country typically known for its luge prowess, Shiva Keshavan may be the country’s best chance to bring home a medal at the Winter Olympics. Keshavan first competed on the Olympic stage at Nagano in 1998 when he was 16, the youngest Olympian luger ever.
In the lead-up to Sochi, Keshavan recently picked up the silver medal at the Asia Cup in Nagano on Dec. 29, posting the best start time in the event and retaining his speed record of 134.3 kmph.
Luckily for Keshavan, the 32-year-old has managed to avoid the financial problems that have been the source of ongoing debate surrounding the Indian Olympic Team, having paid his own way through sponsors and allowing Keshavan to focus on the Games heading into the final few weeks before Sochi.
Event: Short Track Speed Skating (Feb. 10, 13, 15, 18, 21)
Why: Heading into her third Olympic Games, Wang is the most decorated Winter Olympian from China, taking home three gold medals in Vancouver and occupying every position on the podium once in Turin.
A “scuffle” with a team leader at a national training camp in 2011 resulted in Wang being kicked off the team, only to return the following year. Wang took home four gold medals at the world championships in Hungary last year and the 28-year-old, now a veteran, will serve as the de facto head of the Chinese team in Sochi next month.
UPDATE: Wang may be out of Sochi with an ankle fracture sustained Thursday in Shanghai.
Event: Cross-Country Skiing (Feb. 8, 11, 13, 15, 19, 22)
Why: No one may be as threatening a competitor heading into Sochi as Marit Bjoergen. The Norwegian cross-country skier took home five medals, including three gold in Vancouver, the best showing from any athlete at the 2010 Games.
Bjoergen won five medals at the FIS Nordic Ski World Championships in February of last year, helping Norway take home the gold in the 4 x 5 kilometer relay.
The 33-year-old was recently forced to withdraw from Tour de Ski, citing the Olympics as an important part of her decision, but the stomach ache that took Bjoergen out of competition earlier this month should not be a concern for Sochi.
Event: Biathlon (Feb. 9, 11, 14, 17, 19, 21)
Country: United States
Why: Every Olympics needs its fair share of warm and fuzzy stories, and nothing fits the bill more than that of the Barnes twins. When Tracy qualified for the Olympic team in Ridnaun, Italy earlier this month, she decided to relinquish her spot to her sister, Lanny.
“Lanny is my best friend and my teammate,” Tracy said on Tuesday. “I see how hard she works on a daily basis, so I know firsthand that she is deserving of a spot on the Olympic Team.”
Event: Men’s Ski Halfpipe (new event in Sochi) (Feb. 18)
Why: Justin Dorey was the first skier to land the switch double cork 1080, landing the trick and taking home the silver in the superpipe event at the Winter X Europe in 2011. Unfortunately, the same trick was his undoing at the X Games the next year, where he dislocated his shoulder on the fall, but Dorey has made a strong recovery.
At the World Cup just after the start of the year, Dorey topped an all-Canadian podium, ensuring his own entry into the Games and leading a strong Canadian contingent into the new event in Sochi.
“I didn’t realize how big of a deal the Olympics were,” Dorey said after his win on Jan. 3. “I’m starting to realize that it’s one of the biggest feats you can accomplish in sport. You’re on stage in front of the whole world. There’s a very small demographic that pays attention to the X Games but everybody watches the Olympics.”
Watch Dorey land the switch double cork in 2011 here.
Event: Ice Dancing (Feb. 16-17)
Why: The Sochi Games are all about redemption for Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje. The Houston-born Weaver obtained her Canadian citizenship in time to represent Canada at the Vancouver Games, only for the pair to miss qualifying for an Olympic berth by three tenths of a point.
The duo’s toughest competition will come from compatriots Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the defending Olympic champions, but Weaver and Poje have been diligently keeping their heads down.
“It’s been very fundamental for our outlook on skating every day, just making sure that we put our hearts on the line and everything on the line in every day of training,” Poje told Steve Buffery of the Toronto Sun. “We felt like we let ourselves down with what we did [in 2010] and we wanted to make sure that never happened again.”
Event: Women’s Figure Skating (Feb. 8-9 [team event], Feb. 19-20)
Country: United States
Why: While the controversy surrounding Ashley Wagner and Mirai Nagasu has been one of the major stories leading into the Sochi Games, Gracie Gold is one of (if not the) front-runner in the women’s figure skating event. Gold placed first in the 2014 U.S. Championships, earning a career-high short program score of 72.12 to ensure her place on the Olympic team.
To add to an impressive resume, the 18-year-old has the backing of skating legend and analyst Scott Hamilton, who told Matt Lauer on Monday, “[Gold’s] got beautiful presence on the ice, she’s got a great maturity. She reminds me so much of [1994 gold medalist] Oksana Baiul in that time of her development, but she’s just, ‘I’ll make the Olympic team because I’m good enough to make the Olympic team.’”
Perhaps more importantly, Gold believes in herself. “The closer we get to Sochi, the more and more I want to be going for a medal,” Gold told USA Today’s Kelly Whiteside. “I think it's a realistic goal, and we'll see what happens.”
See Gold's short program routine at 2014 U.S. Championships here.
Event: Men’s Hockey (Feb. 12-23)
Why: Though he was not named captain of the Russian squad, Alex Ovechkin is one of the most talented players in the world, let alone his home country. The Capitals’ winger was named Sports Illustrated’s top NHL player of 2013 and took home the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP last season as well.
The field in men’s hockey is particularly deep, with Canada, the U.S. and Sweden all boasting strong teams, but after a disappointing quarterfinal finish in 2010, the Russians will undoubtedly be looking for a big result on their home ice.
Event: Alpine Skiing (Slalom) (Feb. 10, 12, 15, 18, 21)
Country: United States
Why: With Lindsey Vonn out of Sochi, Mikaela Shiffrin’s path to the top of the podium just got even easier. At 18, Shiffrin has won seven slalom events, two of which have come in the last two weeks, including a first-place finish at the World Cup in Austria on Tuesday.
As a native of Vail, Colo., Shiffrin grew up in an area where skiing was a quotidian event and eventually parlayed what started as a “social thing” into a world-class racing career. “The first time I thought about competing at a world class level was about 12 years old,” Shiffrin told The Daily Beast’s Jake Bright. “It was more of a dream than anything.”
Complete schedule of Olympic events.