The top international stars to watch this Olympics

  • Thu Feb 11th, 2010 3:54pm
  • Sports

By Michelle Kaufman The Miami Herald

The last time the Winter Olympics were held in Canada, in Calgary in 1988, the memorable stars included a self-funded short-sighted British ski jumper who finished in last place and a quartet of lovable Jamaican bobsledders who crashed their sled.

Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, a plasterer who wore foggy goggles throughout the Games, became such a crowd favorite that when he was alluded to in a Closing Ceremonies speech by a dignitary, the audience began chanting, “Eddie! Eddie!” The Jamaican bobsledders wound up being the inspiration for the movie, “Cool Runnings.”

So, who will emerge as the international Olympic stars this time? Will it be one of these 10 accomplished athletes, or will it be some quirky unknown? Time will tell. Keep your eye on the following potential stars …

FIGURE SKATING

Patrick Chan, Canada

A Canadian man has never won a gold medal in figure skating, and Chan is determined to be the first. Brian Orser came close, taking silver in 1984 and 1988, when his rivalry with gold medalist Brian Boitano was billed as “The Battle of the Brians.”

Chan, of Chinese heritage, turned 19 on Dec. 31. He won a silver medal at the 2009 World Championships, won the Four Continents championship, and his “Phantom of the Opera” free program is sure to thrill skating fans.

Chan’s biggest competition is expected to come from American Evan Lysacek, Russian Evengi Plushenko and Frenchman Brian Joubert.

CROSS COUNTRY

Petter Northug, Norway

This 23-year-old Norwegian cross country skier is being called “The New Bjorn Daehlie,” which is like calling an American basketball player the new Michael Jordan. Daehlie is the undisputed Norwegian legend of all legends, so to be mentioned in the same breath is quite the compliment.

Northug won three golds at the 2009 world championships, and could be in position to win four medals in Vancouver. The entire nation is expecting big things from him, and the pressure is particularly intense because Norway’s cross country team underperformed at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, finishing fourth behind Russia, Sweden and Italy.

FIGURE SKATING

Kim Yu-Na, South Korea

A new ice princess is crowned every four years, and this time, for the first time in Olympic history, she could be from South Korea. Kim Yu-Na, 19, is the reigning world champion and the favorite to win gold in Vancouver.

She moved to Canada to train four years ago, and her coach is none other than Brian Orser, the Canadian silver medalist at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. Like Orser, whose rival, American Brian Boitano, came from a neighboring bigger country, Kim’s stiffest competition is expected to come from 2008 world champion Mao Asada and 2007 world champion Miki Ando — both of Japan.

CURLING

David Murdoch, Scotland

Other than hockey, there is no bigger Olympic sport in Canada than curling, which means David Murdoch is already a household name there. Murdoch is the Scottish skip of Great Britain’s curling team, and is considered the top athlete in the sport.

He is a two-time world champion (2006, 2009), and was the gold-medal favorite four years ago in Turin, but his team lost the bronze medal match to the United States, a shocking result Murdoch is eager to avenge.

ALPINE SKIING

Lara Gut, Switzerland

Every Olympics has its glamour girls, and Swiss skier Lara Gut is a likely candidate this time around. The 18-year-old has cover girl looks and boundless talent.

She will likely compete in four events — downhill, Super G, giant slalom and Super combined. Two months before her 18th birthday, she won silver medals in the downhill and Super combined at the last world championships. Gut competed in her first FIS races at 15, and in 2007 she became Switzerland’s youngest ever Super G national champion.

One thing is for sure: Gut will be more than ready for her press conferences, as she is fluent in five languages — Italian, French, German, English and Spanish.

SKI CROSS

Ophelie David, France

Aiming to attract a younger crowd, the International Olympic Committee added Ski-Cross to the Vancouver menu. The sport — in which skiers race in fours, shoulder-to-shoulder, down twisty, bumpy tracks — is like BMX on skis.

It is the skiers’ answer to boarder cross, which made its debut in 2006. As it happens, the international ski-cross queen is Ophelie David of France, a 33-year-old mother of a 9-year old. David is the reigning World Cup champion and a pioneer in the extreme sport.

“When I started ski-cross, it was really underground, so this is a nice surprise,” David told Reuters about the inclusion of her sport in the Olympics. “I didn’t say to myself ‘at last,’ but rather ‘wow, amazing.’ Since we’ve got the Olympic tag, the way people look at us has changed,” she said. “We look more serious now and we see the media coming. A lot of spectators will discover our sport at the Games and this is a great opportunity. We must live up to it by putting up a good show.”

HOCKEY

Teemu Selanne, Finland

He’s baaaaack! If it seems Finnish hockey star Teemu Selanne has been around forever, it’s because he has. The forward will be playing in his fifth Olympics. Finland won the silver medal four years ago in Turin, and twice Selanne has been the top scorer at the Olympics. He won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007.

HOCKEY

Alexander Ovechkin, Russia

Be prepared to see a lot of Alexander Ovechkin, the colorful Washington Capitals captain. Last year, he signed a 13-year deal for $124 million, the most lucrative contract in NHL history. Now, he wants to add Olympic gold to his resume.

The left wing was the No. 1 pick of the 2004 draft, and in 2007-08 he led the NHL with 65 goals and 112 points. In February 2009, he scored his 200th goal, the fourth player in history to do that in four years, joining Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy and Mario Lemieux.

SPEEDSKATING

Bob de Jong, Netherlands

Dutch speedskating fans will get to cheer for veteran de Jong again, as the distance skater qualified for his fourth Olympics. De Jong, 33, will compete in the 5,000 and 10,000, the event in which he won gold in 2006.

ALPINE SKIING

Ivica Kostelic, Croatia

His sister, Janica, the three-time gold medalist at the Salt Lake City Olympics, has retired and opened a beauty shop near Zagreb. It is now up to Ivica to carry the family’s and country’s flag into the Olympics.

Kostelic, 30, won a silver in the combined event at the 2006 Olympics, and could compete for multiple medals on Whistler’s slopes. He finished fourth in the World Cup standings last season. A December knee injury kept him from training for a few weeks, but he was back on skis at the New Year.