Forty of the world's top Nordic combined athletes will compete at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, starting early Thursday morning on the American East Coast.
This specialized event combines the elements of ski jumping and cross-country skiing, and Olympic competition is still limited to men. But International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach recently told Karolos Grohmann of Reuters that he'd like to see women included in the Nordic combined event in upcoming Winter Games.
"Think about Nordic combined for women," Bach said. "We have ski jumping for women, cross country for women, so why should we not have Nordic combined because we see that they are a great success and this is a very good way to promote women's sport."
For now, these four-man teams from 10 countries will try to fly and sprint their way to the podium. While you can watch the ski jumping portion of the event live at 3 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Network, the 4x5-kilometer race will start at approximately 5 a.m. ET.
Team USA took silver at the Vancouver Winter Games in 2010, so let's take a look at the U.S. medal chances in Sochi plus schedule info and predictions for the one-day event.
|Large Hill K-125 Jump||Thu., Feb. 20||3 a.m.||NBC SN|
|4 x 5-km Relay||Thu., Feb. 20||5 a.m.||N/A|
Team USA Faces Tall Odds to Earn Medal
There's been a changing of the guard since 2010, and the U.S. men's team doesn't look like it has much of a chance to reach the podium on Thursday.
America's quartet features a couple of experienced veterans in Bill Demong and six-time Olympian Todd Lodwick, along with the young Fletcher brothers Bryan and Taylor. Ken Belson of the New York Times laid out the team's expectations heading into the team event:
If the Americans are going to unleash their attack, it will most likely come in the team event Thursday, in which members of a four-man team ski jump off the large hill and then participate in a relay on a course at the ski jumping site.
The United States won the bronze medal in that event at the world championships in Italy last year, though that was before Lodwick injured his shoulder ski jumping. But the Fletchers have steadily improved: Bryan, 27, is ranked 13th in the world; Taylor, 23, is 28th.
“I think our team has been jumping well on the larger hills recently,” Demong said. “There’s definitely five or six teams who have medal potential, and we’re definitely on that short list.”
But the U.S. individuals didn't perform well in the large hill/10-kilometer race on Tuesday, as Taylor Fletcher (20th), Bryan Fletcher (22nd) and Demong (31st) were all at least 1 minute, 15 seconds off the pace of the winner, Norway's Joergen Graabak.
Lodwick, Team USA's flag-bearer during the opening ceremony, didn't compete in the cross-country portion of the event due to a shoulder injury. But that didn't dampen Lodwick's spirits, as he videobombed NBC reporter Randy Moss during his own injury update, making instant TV gold.
Given the team's slow performance in the individual race and Lodwick's physical issues, it looks tough for the Americans to reach the podium on Thursday. Not to mention there are some top-notch countries that will likely separate themselves from the pack during the cross-country relay portion of the event.
This will likely mark the final hurrah for Lodwick and Demong, the 2010 large hill/10-kilometer gold medalist, but it's also probably just the first of many Winter Games for the Fletcher brothers.
From the looks of it, this will turn into something of a two-nation race between Germany and Norway on the cross-country track. Both nations have great depth in this discipline, but I think the Germans are structured to pull off a close victory.
Who will win gold?
While Graabak and his fellow countryman Magnus Hovdal Moan went one-two in the large hill individual event, Germany was the only nation to place four athletes in the top 10. Rounding out the group at the 10th position was normal hill/10-kilometer gold medalist Eric Frenzel, who has established himself as the best Nordic combined ski jumper in Sochi.
In the end, I think Frenzel's shortcomings in cross-country will be made up by his teammates in the relay, which features four five-kilometer sprints that usually leave athletes collapsed and gasping for air at the finish line. Norway should make it interesting, though, and we could see a close finish in this event.
Rounding out the predicted medal winners is Austria, which won gold in 2006 and 2010, but doesn't look as strong this time around.