Winter Olympics 2014: 25 Biggest Storylines Heading into Sochi Games

Lindsay GibbsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 3, 2014

Winter Olympics 2014: 25 Biggest Storylines Heading into Sochi Games

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    Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

    After four years of anticipation, it's finally time for the Winter Games in Sochi.

    Since Vancouver, the winter Olympians have been hard at work preparing their craft, competing on smaller stages and making sure that they are 100 percent ready once the 2014 Games begin.

    Now, as the world prepares for two weeks of triple axels, slopestyle and slalom, we take a look at some of the biggest storylines that Sochi has to offer.

Can Lolo Jones Finally Win an Olympic Medal?

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    Lolo Jones is one of the least experienced winter sports athletes at these Games, but that doesn't keep her from being one of the most popular. 

    The two-time summer Olympian, who came up just short of the podium in 100-meter hurdles in Beijing and London, is now a pusher for the U.S. bobsled team.

    Despite the controversy surrounding her nomination, the social media-savvy Jones will have all eyes on her as she strives for her moment of glory. 

Will Alex Ovechkin Lead the Russian Hockey Team Back to Glory?

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    The Soviet Union used to dominate Olympic hockey, but Russia hasn't won hockey gold since 1988, and they haven't won any medal at all the last two Olympics.

    That's quite a drought for the former powerhouse, which was humiliated by a sixth-place finish in Vancouver.

    In Sochi, all of the hometown eyes will be on the talented Russian squad this year, led by NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin, to see if their fortunes can be reversed. But with Canada still the favorites for gold, it's going to be a tough task. 

Can Shani Davis or Shaun White Make History with a Three-Peat?

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Two of the most well-known Olympians on Team USA, Shani Davis and Shaun White, are both trying to do something no American has ever done in the Winter Olympics: three-peat.

    Both will be going for their third straight Olympic gold medal in Sochi, Davis in the 1,000-meter speedskating competition and White in the snowboarding halfpipe.

    They're both favorites headed into their respective events. But White will have his chance to make history first, as his event competes on Feb. 11. Davis will have to wait until Feb. 12. 

Can Shaun White Conquer Slopestyle?

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Shaun White is the overwhelming favorite to three-peat in the halfpipe competition, but these Olympic games present another challenge: slopestyle.

    White dominated slopestyle earlier in his career, but stopped focusing on the event a few years ago to master the halfpipe. But, with slopestyle in the Games for the first time ever, he has rededicated himself to the downhill, trick-filled event.

    The gold medal will likely come down to White and Canada's Mark McMorris. 

    UPDATE (February 5): White has withdrawn from slopestyle to focus on winning his third straight Olympic gold in the halfpipe. McMorris and his countryman Max Parrot are now the co-favorites in the event.

Will Mikaela Shiffrin Take over Lindsey Vonn's Mantle?

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    The comparisons are likely to get tiresome, but they're inevitable. With Lindsey Vonn out of Sochi, 18-year-old Shiffrin will have the lion's share of the spotlight in her Olympic debut.

    She is already on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and that's only the beginning. The alpine skiing prodigy is the favorite to take gold in the slalom and is expected to medal in the giant slalom. 

    Of course, though she seems poised, the extent of her superstardom will depend on how well she handles the pressure. 

Can the U.S. Women Get Back onto the Figure Skating Podium?

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    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

    The American women used to dominate Olympic figure skating, but four years ago in Vancouver, Team USA failed to medal.

    Despite the controversy surrounding the formation of the team, Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds and Ashley Wagner will all be trying to get the stars and stripes back onto the podium in Sochi.

    While none of them are favorites, Wagner, the veteran who narrowly missed out on the 2010 team, and Gold, the 18-year-old powerhouse, have the best shots at a top-three finish.

Will the Figure Skating Team Competition Be a Success?

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    David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

    This is the first year for the figure skating team trophy competition, and the jury is still out.

    The competition will actually start the day before the Opening Ceremony and includes complicated rules for selections and substitutions. And, while the event gives figure skaters another shot at an Olympic medal, some worry it will tire the athletes out before their individual skates later in the Games.

    We'll know soon enough whether this event will capture the magic that the team competition in gymnastics has or whether it's merely an afterthought. 

How Will the Kim Yu-Na vs. Mao Asada Rivalry End?

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    Mark Baker/Associated Press

    The two most successful female figure skaters over the last seven years, South Korea's Kim Yu-Na and Japan's Mao Asada, are both retiring after Sochi.

    The 23-year-olds have been friendly rivals since they were in their early teens, though Kim has often gotten the best of Asada on the biggest stages, including the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver where she won the gold and Asada took the silver.

    But after divergent yet difficult paths since Vancouver, the two superstars are poised for one final showdown on their sport's biggest stage. Can Asada get her Olympic gold, or will Yu-Na come out on top again? 

Can Javier Fernandez Win Spain a Rare Winter Olympics Medal?

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    Darko Bandic/Associated Press

    Spain is far from a Winter Olympics powerhouse. The European country has only won two medals in the history of the Winter Games, and none of them have come in figure skating.

    But 22-year-old Javier Fernandez is trying to change that. The two-time defending European Champion and bronze medalist from the 2013 world championships is a strong contender for a medal in men's figure skating. 

    Fernandez might train in Toronto, but Spain's flag bearer in Sochi is trying to put his native country on the figure-skating map.

Will Meryl Davis and Charlie White Win America's First Ice Dancing Gold?

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Meryl Davis and Charlie White will try and win America's first ever ice-dancing gold.

    The six-time national champions soared onto the international stage when they took the silver in Vancouver, and they've been nearly unbeatable ever since.

    "We've had lot of great moments over the last four years and we feel we've put ourselves in a really great position to come home with the gold medal," White said, via USA Today's Nancy Armour.

    The only dancers who have beaten them in the last four years are the defending Olympic Champions, Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. The two couples, who are also training partners, will be having a showdown on ice for the gold medal. 

     

Will Lindsey Jacobellis Finally Get Her Olympic Gold?

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Lindsey Jacobellis has been the best snowboard cross athlete for nearly a decade, but she's yet to be crowned on the Olympic stage.

    At her Olympic debut back in 2006, the American messed up on an unnecessary trick right before the finish line, dropping her from gold to silver. In Vancouver, she was disqualified before the medal rounds.

    Now 28, the eight-time X Games Champion is looking to finally get her much-deserved gold in Sochi. 

Will There Be Any Gay Rights Protests?

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    Kostas Tsironis/Associated Press

    The Sochi Olympics have become a battleground for gay rights, and tensions are high in the lead-up to the Games.

    With Russia's new anti-gay laws in effect, banning what they consider "gay propaganda" of any kind,  and the mayor of Sochi claiming that there are no gay people in his town, human rights activists have been trying to get sponsors, fans and athletes to boycott the Games.

    But the show will go on. Russian president Vladimir Putin has said that the aforementioned law won't effect the Games, but it remains to be seen whether the controversy will erupt and take center stage. 

How Will Yevgeny Plushenko Fare in Fourth Olympics?

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Yevgeny Plushenko is back! 

    After winning a silver medal in Salt Lake City, a gold medal in Torino and a silver medal in Vancouver, the 31-year-old Russian is trying to become the first figure skater to make the podium in four straight Olympics.

    Plushenko has struggled in a comeback from injury, was controversially awarded Russia's sole figure skating spot in the competition and is a long shot for a medal in front of his hometown crowd. But with Plushenko, anything is possible.

How Popular Will New Winter Olympic Sports Be?

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    Darko Bandic/Associated Press

    There are many events making Olympic debuts in Sochi.

    The X Games events are continuing their Olympic takeover, with freestyle skiing adding halfpipe and slopestyle events for men and women. Snowboarding expansions will include slopestyle and snowboard parallel special slalom, both for men and women as well.

    Additionally, women's ski jumping finally joins men's ski jumping as an Olympic event after the women have been fighting to be added to the Games since 1998. 

    There is also a biathlon mixed relay, luge team relay and a figure skating team event premiering in Sochi. Will they all stick? Or will they be just flashes in the Olympic pan?

Can the Dufour-Lapointe Sisters Sweep the Moguls Podium?

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    Todd Korol/Getty Images

    What a talented family! Justine (19), Chloe (22) and Maxime Dufour-Lapointe (24) are all competing for Team Canada in moguls in Sochi.  

    What's even more impressive is that they all actually have a shot at winning medals in Sochi in freestyle skiing moguls. The youngest, Justine, has the best shot, as she is ranked No. 2 in the world right now, but Chloe is No. 3 and Maxime is No. 5, so they're all in contention. 

    If they could pull off the amazing feat, they would be the first trio of sisters to sweep a podium. 

     

How Will Biathlete Lanny Barnes Perform After Her Sister Abdicated Her Throne?

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    Associated Press

    In one of the biggest stories heading into the Games, American biathlete Tracy Barnes gave up her spot on the Olympic team so that her twin sister Lanny, who was too ill to compete at the Olympic trials, could go to Sochi.

    In her third Olympics, Lanny will be leading the largest Olympic biathlete team in American history.

    The biathlon has always been an off-the-radar event for Americans, but with a nation cheering her on in the name of the Olympic spirit, Lanny will be trying to lead the team to prominence for the first time ever. 

Will Ted Ligety Win Three Alpine Skiing Medals?

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    Ted Ligety has had a phenomenal year, winning eight World Cup races in the giant slalom since the start of 2013 and claiming three gold medals at last year's world championships in Schladming, Austria. 

    Now, he's going for Olympic history as he tries to win a medal in super combined, giant slalom and super-G. While he's a favorite in the former two, the super-G is going to be his biggest test.

    Still, on an alpine skiing team that's missing the star power of Vonn, and with Bode Miller not as great as he once was, Ligety's quest for skiing greatness is the star of the show.

Can Bode Miller Complete His Comeback and Medal in His Fifth Olympics?

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    Now in his fifth Olympics, American superstar Bode Miller rejuvenated his alpine skiing career in the months leading up to Sochi.

    The controversial Miller already has five Olympic medals and is the most decorated American male in the history of alpine skiing, but he can add to his legacy at these Games.

    After taking time off for a knee operation in 2012 and 2013, Miller is hitting his stride at the right time and is favored to medal in downhill. 

Can Kikkan Randall Deliver the First Gold in Cross-Country Skiing to the USA?

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    The United States has never won a gold medal in cross-country skiing, but 2013 world champion Kikkan Randall is giving the nation reason to hope in Sochi.

    In her fourth Olympics, the 31-year-old is trying to snap a 38-year medal drought for the U.S. and give Bill Koch's 1976 silver medal some company in the record books.

    A ferocious competitor, the Alaskan excels at the freestyle sprint. Finally coming into her own after finishing off the podium the last three Games, Randall is the favorite for the gold this year. 

Can the United States Women's Hockey Team Get Revenge vs. Canada?

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

    For the United States women's hockey team, nothing less than a gold medal in Sochi will do.

    The defending world champions will have to get past Canada first, though. The Canadians have won the last three Olympic gold medals. In the same time span, the United States won two silvers and one bronze. 

    The fierce and physical North American rivalry hit a fever pitch with an epic fight in their encounter in October, but the U.S. comes into Sochi as the slight favorite and fully ready to exorcise past demons. 

     

Will Cross-Country Skiier Marit Bjoergen Win a Record-Setting Six Medals?

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    Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Getty Images

    Four years ago in Vancouver, Norwegian Marit Bjoergen won a Winter Olympic-record five medals in the Games. This year, she's attempting to win six.

    She's favored to medal in all four of the individual cross-country events, and Norway is also favored in both team competitions. However, the 33-year-old rarely competes in the two-woman sprint, and it's unknown whether she will in Sochi.

    Bjoergen is a four-time Olympian who already has seven medals to her name. If she were able to accomplish the heroic feat, she would become the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time.

     

Can American Elana Meyers Overtake Kaillie Humphries in Bobsled?

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Canadian Kaillie Humphries is the queen of the bobsled right now. The 28-year-old is the defending Olympic Champion, world champion and two-time reigning World Cup champion. 

    But the best American hope for gold is nipping at her heels. Elana Meyers finished the World Cup year just one point below Humphries in the standings, and the bronze medal pusher from 2010 is ready to be a gold medal driver in 2014. 

    The margins separating the two in Sochi are going to be slim—if Humphries had finished her final World Cup race just 0.03 seconds slower, she would have lost her crown to Meyers. It's definitely a rivalry to watch. 

Can Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov Restore Russia to Pairs Prominence?

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    Koki Nagahama/Getty Images

    Every Winter Olympic year from 1964-2006, a Russian team won gold in pairs figure skating. Then, in 2010, the nation was kept off of the podium entirely.

    Now, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, who joined forces right after the Vancouver Games, are trying to get Russia back to the top of the pairs podium in front of their home crowd.

    With the Russian figure skating team weaker than in past years, all of the pressure will be on this team to win gold. 

Will the Fans and Athletes Be Safe?

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    Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

    Any time there's a large event such as the Olympics, safety is a big concern, but in Sochi, the threat of violence is much more palpable.

    Sochi is located just 300 miles from Russia’s North Caucasus region, a center of Islamist extremist activity, and insurgents from that area have long threatened an attack on the Games.

    Now, as rumors of "black widow" suicide bombers emerge and security breeches are confirmed, the U.S. Olympic  Committee advised American athletes to not wear their Team USA gear outside the compound. Due to the concerns, many athletes are asking their friends and family to stay home. 

Can Ole Einar Bjoerndalen Become the Most Decorated Winter Olympian?

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    Felice Calabro'/Associated Press

    Forty-year-old Ole Einar Bjoerndalen needs just two more medals in Sochi to pass Norwegian cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie, who retired with 12 medals as the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time. 

    The Norwegian biathlete will compete in the men’s 4 x 7.5 kilometer relay at these Games, and he also might compete in the new mixed biathlon relay, though his participation in that is more uncertain

    If he does compete in both relays, he will likely make history since Norway is a medal favorite in both events. Norwegian cross-country skiier Marit Bjoergen and German speed skater Claudia Pechstein also both have outside chances at winning medal No. 13 in Sochi.