It’s more than their unusual Black Sea locale that, for American TV viewers at least, will lend an exotic flavor to these 2014 Winter Olympics.
Ninety years after 304 mostly aristocratic, mostly male amateurs gathered for the first Winter Games, Sochi’s schedule will showcase several new daredevil sports, more team events, and a superstar roster dominated by females.
With diminished women’s figure-skating hopes and a men’s hockey team so far absent from the gold-medal conversation, the U.S. will rely on much-improved bobsled and Alpine skiing teams as it seeks a second straight medal-count victory.
“I don’t think the U.S. ski team, men and women, has ever gone into an Olympics with more star power,” said Steve Porino, an ex-American ski-team member who will be an NBC analyst at Sochi. “These are once-an-era athletes.”
Among the male skiers, Bode Miller, making his record fifth Olympic appearance, and Ted Ligety, who won three golds at the most recent World Championships, should contend whenever they’re on the Krasnaya Polyana slopes.
Julie Mancuso and Mikaela Shiffrin, the 18-year-old phenom who is the reigning world slalom champion, should make up for the absence of injured Lindsey Vonn.
In the Olympic movement’s nod to the popularity of extreme sports, half-pipe and slopestyle skiing, slopestyle snowboard and snowboard parallel slalom will debut.
In addition, women ski-jumpers will compete for the first time and there will be new team events — a mixed biathlon relay, a luge relay and a team figure-skating competition.
Youthful, edgy and able to arouse national interest, these additions were meant to attract a younger TV audience, a demographic that often views Olympic staples like figure-skating as too formal and staid.
Now familiar snowboarders like Louis Vito, Kelly Clark and Shaun White are back on the free-spirited U.S. team. White, the sport’s superstar, has been training on a private half-pipe in Australia.
“In our sports,” said Clark, “there’s more room for self-expression and creativity.”
Among the best-known competitors in the slopestyle events is Tom Wallisch, who built a reputation and a worldwide following with videos of his performances.
Like it or not, TV viewers here will have to get used to these rookie snow sports. NBC, which along with its affiliated broadcast platforms will present 1,539 hours of television, will focus heavily on them.
That’s because Americans are expected to do well, a development that could counter anticipated declines in interest and medals in men’s and women’s figure-skating, normally the Games’ biggest TV-ratings producers.
Four years ago at Vancouver, America’s female skaters failed to medal for a first time since 1964. None has finished in the top three at a World Championship since 2006.
“The U.S. ladies need a medalist,” said Ashley Wagner. “We need that for interest in the sport.”
Wagner, the Skating Club of Wilmington product who was expected to be the nation’s best bet at Sochi, stumbled at last month’s national championships and barely made the team.
South Korea’s Yuna Kim will be the heavy favorite. Her stiffest challenge is expected to come from a handful of Japanese skaters and host Russia’s Julia Lipnitskaia.
Since defending gold-medalist Evan Lysacek is out with an injury, the story is much the same for the U.S. men, as well as for its pairs.
Curiously, it’s in the one skating discipline where America has never won a gold, ice dancing, where its best hopes for one lie. Meryl Davis and Charlie White took silver in Canada and are the defending world champions.
NBC is hoping the edgier competitions, with their high-flying acrobatics and falls, will make up for that shortcoming.
“All these new events come at a time when the audience’s appetite and ability to interact with all sports is growing,” NBC Olympics executive producer Jim Bell said during a recent teleconference with reporters.
That appetite should be whetted by dozens of must-see moments at Sochi, where Vladimir Putin’s $51 billion Games officially open with Friday’s Opening Ceremonies.
Among the most intriguing should be the Feb. 12 showdown between the U.S. and Canada in women’s hockey.
Those two have won every gold medal since the sport was introduced in 1998. Their rivalry has grown so bitter that they engaged in two all-out brawls during the run-up to Sochi.
“If players are going to take cheap shots at our players, there’s going to be an answer for that. We will not get pushed around,” said Katey Stone, who is the U.S. team’s first female coach.
A day earlier, 90 years after the male version, women’s ski-jumping arrives at the Olympics.
Visually compelling, the soaring competition will feature perhaps the surest bet for an Olympic gold medal, Japan’s Sara Takanashi.
The 17-year-old won eight of the season’s nine World Cup jumps. Her only serious rival appears to be America’s Sarah Hendrickson, who seems to have rehabbed successfully from an August knee injury.
“The feeling on that first jump back was one of the best sensations in the entire world,” she said.
Russia, playing with a home-ice advantage, and Canada are widely viewed as the men’s hockey favorites, slightly ahead of Sweden and the U.S.
Those with a taste for the more obscure sports can focus on Tim Burke, who could bring the U.S. its first Olympic biathlon medal in the 20-kilometer event.
Another two-time gold-medalist, Shani Davis, heads America’s long-track speedskating team and is the favorite again in the 1,000-meter event.
The U.S. led the Vancouver medal count with 37 (9 gold, 15 silver and 13 bronze) but could face a serious challenge from Russia’s home-team bump.