Ten reasons for Olympic excitement

After years of planning, spending and waiting, the 2010 Olympics open tonight in Vancouver, B.C.

And while a number of lucky fans will drive, fly or take buses or trains to Vancouver and Whistler to see the Games firsthand, the vast majority will experience these Olympics like everyone else around the world: on television.

So with hundreds of hours of TV programming dedicated to the Games — not to mention endless amounts of Internet coverage — how do you narrow it down and decide what to watch?

Well, glad you asked. It would be impossible to see everything worthwhile that happens in British Columbia over the next two weeks, and with that in mind, The Herald is happy to offer the following 10 suggestions of things to watch in order to make the 2010 Olympics a memorable experience, even from your living room couch.

1. The opening ceremony

Just what we’ll see tonight remains a mystery, but expect an extravagant show. Yes, this event, at three hours, can feel long. Yes, with so much going on, it doesn’t always translate well to television. And yes, there are a lot of over-the-top theatrics, but for the athletes, marching into the stadium behind their country’s flag is still a goose-bump-inducing experience.

Besides, aren’t you dying to know who’s going to light the Olympic flame?

2. The big guns

NBC is going to force a healthy amount of Apolo Ohno and Lindsey Vonn down our gullets, so you might as well get used to it. And you know what? The top athletes — those few who are famous for more than two weeks every four years — are a big deal for a reason. Ohno is two medals away from becoming the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian in history, and Vonn has the ski racing talent to take home three, four or possibly even five medals — if, that is, she’s healthy. The condition of her bruised right shin has been the big, hold-your-breath news in Vancouver this week. It’s easy to pull for Vonn’s health, however, because unlike America’s big name in ski racing at the last Olympics, Bode Miller, she comes across as genuine and likable. And heck, while we’re at it, keep an eye on Miller. The 2006 Games were a major letdown for America’s top male skier, but he still has the talent to medal in multiple events.

3. The long shots

Sure, we want to know who hauls in the medals, but sometimes it’s fun to hear about the athlete who’s at the Olympics simply for the chance to compete and represent his or her country. For every legitimate medal contender, there are a handful of athletes who know that, barring highly unlikely circumstances, they’ll return to their home countries with nothing more than memories.

Noncompetitive doesn’t always equate to noncompelling, however. Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong took up skiing seven years ago at an indoor, man-made hill in England. In Whistler he’ll represent his home country, Ghana, in the giant slalom and slalom, making him the first winter Olympian from the West African nation. Luckily for fans and headline writers everywhere, Nkrumah-Acheampong has a nickname: The Snow Leopard.

Or if you’re looking to follow an underdog from closer to home, check out Seattle’s own Roberto Carcelen. Like the Snow Leopard, Carcelen doesn’t have realistic medal hopes, but that hasn’t stopped the Peruvian turned Seattleite from chasing a dream. Carcelen, who moved to the U.S. after falling in love with an American woman, took up Nordic skiing just three years ago, and will be Peru’s only winter Olympian.

4. Hockey

In any winter Olympics, hockey is a big deal, but in Canada, it’s off-the-charts huge. Canada is the gold-medal favorite in both the men’s and women’s competitions, and those teams, more than any group of athletes at these Olympics, will be under intense pressure to live up to expectations.

Any scenario that gives Sidney Crosby and Co. a gold medal will be a triumph for Canadians, but they’ll party a little harder if that gold-clinching win happens to come against the Americans. Canada facing Russia would provide another tantalizing match-up, as it would pit Crosby and long-time rival Alex Ovechkin, the NHL’s two best players, against each other with national pride on the line.

5. Curling.

No, seriously, curling. Mock it if you will, call it shuffleboard on ice (and what’s wrong with shuffleboard anyway?) but curling is a big deal in Canada, and as a result the sport will be huge at these Olympics. If ever there was a time to pay attention and gain a little bit of understanding for the sport, it’s over the next two weeks.

Canada could win men’s and women’s gold, but on the men’s side, defending world champion Great Britain is a threat, and on the women’s side, China is making its Olympic debut as an unlikely power.

6. What’ll Weir wear?

Can’t get behind the grace and artistry of figure skating? Too bad, because you’re going to be exposed to quite a bit of the popular sport over the next two weeks. So if you can’t appreciate it, at least go into it with a light-hearted approach, and pass the time by laughing at the absurd costumes. And nobody does absurd quite like American Johnny Weir, who has been known to work feathers, tassels and sequins into his off-the-wall ensembles.

Or you and your friends can place side bets on which judge is most likely to be busted for corruption, or on which skater might start a fight — physical or verbal — with an opponent. If you’re a fan of drama, this is your sport.

Either that, or use the tried-and-true method of rooting for falls.

7. Ski and snowboard cross*

Snowboard cross debuted at the 2006 games and was a hit. And what’s not to like? You’ve got four racers starting at once and sharing a course featuring jumps, banked turns and ultimately collisions.

Well this year the skiers get in on the action. Ski cross looks a lot like snowboard cross, but at higher speeds. One of America’s medal hopefuls is Daron Rahlves, who took up the sport after retiring from a successful alpine career following the 2006 games. Rahlves has World Cup wins and world championships on his resume, but an Olympic medal has evaded him throughout his decorated career. Perhaps he’ll break through in a new event.

*Contingent on there being enough snow to actually pull this thing off (see No. 8)

8. Will the weather cooperate?

Cypress Mountain is located just north of Vancouver, and with its low elevation, a lack of snow during this unusually warm winter has become a serious problem. Cypress is host to freestyle skiing, ski cross and all snowboard events, and Olympic organizers insist events will go on as scheduled, but athletes arrived to canceled training sessions. Snow has been piled up at high elevations, and truckloads of the white stuff are being brought in to supplement the mountain’s melting supply. Let’s just hope it doesn’t rain.

Meanwhile up at Whistler, site of men’s and women’s alpine skiing, snow won’t be a problem. That is unless there ends up being too much of it. Ski racing, in particular the speed events (downhill and super-G), require near-perfect conditions to keep racers safe at speeds of 80-plus miles per hours. And as anyone who has skied at Whistler or in Washington state knows, heavy snowfall, fog and wind are very real possibilities.

9. Pressure on the host country

Montreal hosted the summer Olympics in 1976, and Calgary had the winter Games in 1988, and in Canada’s two shots as an Olympic host, it failed to win a single gold medal. Ever since Vancouver/Whistler landed the games, Canada has made it clear that another disappointing showing will not be acceptable.

With any luck, the pressure to break that gold-medal drought could go away on the first day of competition. Team Canada has medal hopefuls competing in several events Saturday, including Manuel Osborne-Paradis (men’s downhill), Charles Hamelin (short-track speed-skating, 1,500) and Jennifer Heil (mogul skiing).

10. Washingtonians

Eleven Washingtonians are part of team U.S.A., and two more will compete for foreign countries. Among that group are several medal hopefuls who could make this the state’s best Winter Olympic showing since the 1984 Games when four Washington athletes — Phil Mahre, Steve Mahre, Debbie Armstrong, and Edmonds’ Rosalynn Sumners — took home medals.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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