A historic day in the making in Sochi, the fourth day of the Games features two sports making their Olympic debuts: women's ski jumping and freestyle skiing.
Not only that, but the Olympic's first major controversy has erupted, as snowboarders are fuming about the condition of the Sochi superpipe. Several top riders, including Shaun White, have called it subpar (and that's putting it politely).
U.S. women hope to end droughts in a couple of events—speedskaters haven't won an Olympic medal since 2002, and cross-country skiers have never reached the podium.
Meanwhile, at Iceberg Palace, Russian fans will likely have more reason to go crazy when pairs Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov take the ice in figure skating's short program.
After dropping out of slopestyle to concentrate on his signature event, anything less than gold would be a disappointment for Shaun White.
Then again, he can always blame the halfpipe itself, as everyone else seems to be doing.
Joining White with major criticisms about the pipe have been the sport's other top riders, who have described it as "dangerous," "crappy" and "garbage" in the days before the event, per The Australian (subscription required). Among the complaints are the halfpipe's bottom section—which had a bump—and the overly vertical walls, which forced builders to re-cut part of the structure in the days before the world's best drop in.
As for the competition, White might face his biggest challenge yet to win his third straight Olympic gold. The emergence of other riders like Ayumu Hirano and Iouri Podladtchikov, along with fellow American Danny Davis, a recent X Games winner should provide some stiff competition.
The rest of the field senses White’s vulnerability. He suffered a rare and recent defeat by Greg Bretz in December. Davis—in his first Olympics—is not intimidated by the superstar, having beaten him in 2010.
Hirano is a 15-year-old Japanese phenom, and the local crowd will be cheering for the Russian-born Podladtchikov, who rides for Switzerland. He is famous for a signature move he calls the Yolo flip, as in "you only live once."
Women’s ski jumping makes its Olympic debut with a huge question: Is Sarah Hendrickson ready?
The other Sara, Japan’s Takanashi, is the overwhelming favorite for gold. Before Hendrickson wrecked her knee last year in training, the two were on a collision course to battle for Sochi gold; they are head and shoulders above the rest of the field.
Hendrickson has barely made it back to jumping in time and had limited practice on the Olympic jumps.
If there’s any justice, American Lindsey Van would medal. She is largely responsible for getting the sport in the Games after years of legal wrangling. Fellow American Jessica Jerome has also landed some solid jumps on the Olympic hill.
Can Russia carry the momentum from its gold-medal team skate into the pairs? Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov are the favorites as defending world champions and three-time European champions.
Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, along with China’s Qing Pang and Jian Tong, the 2010 Olympic silver medalists and two-time world champions, will need strong skates to topple the Russians.
U.S. pairs skaters Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir are unlikely medalists but are notable for a possible throw quad salchow that they tried at nationals. Expect the drought to continue for U.S. pairs, which haven’t won an Olympic medal since 1988 when Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard took home the bronze.
If the U.S. is going to make history in cross-country, chances are good it will be here. Alaska’s Kikkan Randall, the four-time Olympian, has a pink swatch of hair and a great chance to end the U.S. team’s Olympic medal drought in this sport with her best event, the individual sprint.
No American woman has ever won an Olympic medal in cross-country, with the program’s lone medal coming in 1976 with Bill Koch’s silver in 30 kilometers. Look for the gold to come down to Randall and world champion Marit Bjoergen of Norway. Randall edged Bjoergen for the World Cup overall sprint title last year.
Petter Northug Jr. of Norway, the two-time overall World Cup champion, is favored for gold.
The American men are led by two-time Olympian Andy Newell, Simeon Hamilton and Torin Koos, who is racing in his fourth and final Games. He made the Olympic team despite being dropped from the U.S. national team after a disappointing 2010 Games.
But it would take a huge step for an American to land on the podium. U.S. cross-country hasn't seen a medal since 1976, when Bill Koch won silver in 30 kilometers. He is the lone American to win an Olympic medal in the sport's history.
That said, the sprints present a level of unpredictability that distance events don't. Skiers crash, equipment breaks, and turns are tight on the 1.5-kilometer course, where four or five skiers sprint shoulder-to-shoulder. The U.S. will need a big break somewhere to finish in the top three.
The U.S. team is a long way from its dominant days when Bonnie Blair ruled the ice and is stronger at the middle distances.
The Americans look to get on the podium on ice for the first time in these Games with Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe. Korea’s Sang Hwa Lee, the defending Olympic gold medalist and 2010 world sprint champion, is the favorite in Sochi.
A U.S. medal would be the first for women in Olympic speedskating since 2002.
If they don't do it in the 500 meters, keep watching. The best event for Bowe, 25, is the 1,000 meters, where she holds the world record, which she set in mid-November. Bowe, an inline skater since age eight, was a basketball player in college at Florida Atlantic.
Canadian Christine Nesbitt could also figure in the medals in 500 meters.
Freestyle skiing makes its Olympic debut with women’s slopestyle. If the U.S. can come even close to matching its snowboard slopestyle counterparts—Americans Sage Kotsenburg and Jamie Anderson took gold in men’s and women’s competitions—it will be remarkable.
Skiers, clearly happy to be here, say the slopestyle course has rounded into form as the Games have progressed.
Canadian skier Dara Howell threw down a challenge, saying Canadians can sweep the slopestyle ski golds similar to what the U.S. did in snowboard, telling Rueters via Yahoo! Sports: "I definitely think it is possible. The Canada team is really strong and I think everyone is starting to feel it out and get used to the course now."
Howell’s teammate Kaya Turski is the event favorite after recently winning her fourth X Games gold medal despite blowing out her knee just six months ago. Keri Herman is the U.S. team’s best chance to medal, winning four silvers in the X Games. Look for Howell to figure in on the medals after she took three X Games bronzes.